The 50th Comrades was run in 1975 and still known as “The Golden Jubilee” and a huge amount of fanfare came with the announcement of a “special medal” to celebrate this.
If there are those who consider this to be a political blog, it’s certainly not the intention. It is merely the story of a part of Comrades in which I was involved and at which I was present.
The Golden Jubilee wasn’t the only thing that happened for the 1975 race and in fact it had all started in the second half of 1974 when the organisers decided to take a proposal to Collegians Harriers, to whom Comrades belonged in those days to get permission from the South African Amateur Athletics Union (SAAAU) that the race should be open to all races and also to women. The rules were clear. People of colour and women were not permitted to compete in the same athletics events as men.
Shock and horror!
It’s interesting however that I had attended the SA Games in Pretoria in 1973 and a man who later became a great friend, Titus Mamabola, took part in the 5000 metre race at Pilditch Stadium in Pretoria in those games. I also remember a huge number of totally unnecessary comments from the spectators aimed at Titus. Titus, incidentally, the grandfather of 2012 Comrades winner, Ludwick Mamabolo.
The decision on whether to take the opening of Comrades to SAAAU or not, would only be taken if the members of Collegians Harriers agreed to this at the AGM. The decision by the Comrades Committee who wanted to open the race was by no means the final decision and was purely a recommendation.
I remember that AGM having more members attend than any other open meeting of the club as the news of this shocking proposal was by now public knowledge. It’s important to remember that this was in late 1974 and deep in the Apartheid years and in fact almost two years before the Soweto uprisings that I have always believed led to the eventual change in South Africa.
Anyway back to the AGM and all went smoothly and according to plan as any AGM should with confirmation of minutes and of the finances and the Chairman’s report. For the record the Chairman of Collegians Harriers and the Comrades Committee was the same person and he was Mick Winn who in later years went on to become Chairman of both Natal Marathon Runners Assoc and also of SARRA (South African Road Running Association).
After all the mundane general meeting stuff had been concluded, Mick put the Comrades and Collegians Harriers proposal to the floor. What followed was an explosion that could have been heard hundreds of kilometres away.
As I said this was 1974 and Apartheid years and everywhere one went one was bound to meet a person whose thinking was decidedly right wing and this is where the problems were. I have always believed that had Collegians not had a Chairman as strong as Mick, the meeting was destined to get completely out of control. Eventually the proposal was put to the vote and sanity prevailed and the decision taken that this be taken to SAAAU.
The fact that Collegians members had agreed didn’t by any stretch of the imagination mean that the race would be opened. The final decision on that rested with SAAAU. Again after a lot of talking and debating it was agreed that the race could be open to all races and not only to all races, but to women as well. That decision came with a ruling that most of us couldn’t understand at the time and in fact I still don’t.
The powers that be, agreed to allow the race to be open to all races provided that black runners wore “ethnic tags” on their vests denoting whether they were Zulu, Xhosa, etc. Didn’t understand it then and still don’t but Comrades was open. One would have expected then that this rule would be followed through to “Woman” or “Indian” or “Coloured” but that didn’t happen.
The next big problem facing organisers was the fact that with the race now being open and also the 50th that the roads wouldn’t be big enough to handle the expected fields. That was the official reason given so it was decided that the entries would be limited to 1500. Initially the rumour flew around that everyone had to qualify but then we heard that it would only be novices!!
The huge fields expected didn’t happen and 1686 runners entered and this was pruned to 1500. Of the 1500 only 20 entries were from black runners.
The qualifying time to be able to enter Comrades 1975 was a 3:30 marathon. I wasn’t on the Comrades organising committee at that time so I have no idea where both the rules about limiting the number of runners and the qualifying came from!
Both the limit on runners and qualifying requirements were scrapped for the 1976 race and although qualifying was introduced some years later, that was for a different reason altogether.
The big day came for the 50th Comrades and it was won by Derek Preiss in a time of 5:53:50. Preiss incidentally had won Comrades in 1974 as well and was the last person to do so in over 6 hours. He crossed the line in 6:02:49 in 1974, just a few minutes ahead of a 20 year old novice by the name of Alan Robb who finished in third place.
There had been unofficial black runners since as far back as the 1930’s but the first official black winner of a Comrades medal was the late Gabashane “Vincent” Rakabaele who finished in 20th position. He finished 4th the following year and 8th the year after that. Rakabaele passed away in late 2009 but sadly very few people even remember his name despite the fact that he made such an impact on the race in the 1970’s.
There was also another category of runner competing for the first time and they were the women runners. There had also been a fair number of unofficial women runners over the years and in fact it was one of these brave ladies who ran regularly in the 1930’s, Geraldine Watson who donated the trophy for the last official finisher, but the first woman to win an official Comrades Marathon medal was Betty Cavanagh who came home in a little over 10 hours.
The Cavanagh Marathon still held every year in Estcourt was named after the Cavanagh family, Betty and husband Tony.
1975, the year that changed it all.