December 22, 2015 by DAVE JACK
I was fortunate to have known Alison West for a long time and I was also fortunate to have been able to have called her a really good friend and it was a privilege to have been able to have worked with her on Comrades matters for many years.
We lost Alison to cancer on 22 December 2009 and I asked her husband, Pete, to write something about this remarkable person who, at the time of writing this blog remains the only woman to have held the position of Chairperson of the Comrades Marathon Association.
Here’s what Pete wrote.
From the day I met her, Ali always dived in headlong to support and become involved with whatever activity I was involved in, be it sailing, scuba diving, flying, skydiving (she did one parachute jump) and of course road running. I had joined Collegians Harriers to fulfil my dream of running the Comrades Marathon in 1979 and it wasn’t long before my second, she was on the race organising committee. A departmental head at the then Allied Building Society, she was valued for her organisational skills.
It wasn’t long before Mick Winn (featured in a previous blog) found out about her and approached her to take on the portfolio of the Comrades Shop. She was shown the “stock” which comprised a number of yellow T-shirts with black Comrades logos and numerous cartons of ashtrays (can you believe) also with Comrades logos.
The “shop” showed a turnover at that time of around R20,000-00. Ali had the Executive Committee, which had just broken its ties with Collegians Harriers, quaking with her request for funds to purchase large quantities of stock which she had sourced. Suppliers were quick to discover that there were no favourites. In her third year as shop convenor, Ali turned over the magical sales figure of one million Rand – achieved in just three days of the ‘expo!
The now successful Comrades shop generated the major portion of the funds which enabled the Comrades Marathon to purchase its own home. Ali was elected to the Comrades Executive Committee, and proceeded to climb in boots and all. Mediocrity did not form part of her vocabulary. She was totally committed and expected the same from all.
The shop had grown to the extent where it became necessary to outsource it to a sport apparel manufacturer and Ali took on the portfolio of the Finish. She immediately identified that the timekeeping procedure was cumbersome and likely to fail with the increased numbers. Identifying winners of different categories was a nightmare. Barcode scanners were used with an adjusted time allowing for the period it took to proceed from the finish line to the scanner.
A company in the Netherlands had developed a system using transponders which allowed simultaneous recoding of multiple finishers. A trip to the Berlin Marathon where the Championchip was being used confirmed the system worked and it is still in operation today. Procurement of medals, packaging, VIP’s, Finish layout, traffic, parking and a host of other aspects were subject to Ali’s scrutiny and approval. She never failed to acknowledge all who assisted be they volunteers or service providers. She loved her visits to the “A-Team”, the group of dedicated volunteers who build and dismantle the finish each year, work parties both before and after the event.
Chairmen of the CMA were usually professional people who were able to spend much of a working day on Comrades matters. It was the nature of the beast. By now it was evident to the board members that Ali possessed the dedication, commitment, knowledge and will to become the first woman to fill the chair position. Ali was worried that her job would not allow her the time during working hours to meet the demands. She need not have worried.
Firstly, the CEO of the bank where she worked was an avid Comrades runner and then her branch manager Hughie Smith just loved Ali for her ability and dedication to her job. They both gave their blessing and encouragement.
The term, 2000 to 2002 would be a tricky one for the chairman. Firstly there was the Millennium race to handle and looming on the horizon was tremendous political pressure to transform the Association.
The Millennium event which finished at the Scottsville Racecourse was listed in the Guinness Book of records. Her first event as chairman, Ali steered the committee into extending the cut off time to 12 hours. The record entry, which still stands, was the result. An administrative error saw them running out of Bronze Medals. Ali called for accountability from all, including herself, and accepted full responsibility.
Comrades Marathon was under threat to have TV coverage withdrawn unless action was taken to transform. Representation of all races on the executive was demanded in threatening correspondence. The powers that be did not understand that the Association was comprised of volunteers in its entirety and there was little support from the black community for such commitment without remuneration.
Ali took a call at work: “Mrs Alison, This is Ngconde Balfour – the Minister of Sport and I wish you to attend a meeting with me in Durban on Thursday at 10am.” Typical Ali response- “Mr. Minister, I will have to get back to you as I will require permission from my boss”.
Ali, Cheryl Winn and Brian Kurz attended the meeting. Balfour opened with a statement that women belonged in the home to raise the children and cook the food. Ali responded to the tune that she was there for the benefit of the Comrades Marathon and that they would not stand for intimidation! She later revealed to me that she could not believe the words had come from her mouth! She was quaking but it did the trick. They left the meeting with a commitment from the Minister and a promise to pursue transformation vigorously.
In March 2001, Ali was awarded Honours with Life Membership. She was extremely proud of this achievement as there were few members to hold the double award.
Ali remained on the Executive until the day she died. For years after her term as chairman – She insisted on being called “chairman” and not chair lady or chair person, she would receive calls from the then current chairman for her opinion on delicate or complex issues. Her knowledge and human understanding was always in demand.
Ali fought the cancer to the end. We were living in Howick and she was so buoyed up by visits from two of her favourite athletes- Alan Robb and Bruce Fordyce. I witnessed just how much they loved her.
In her last few weeks, she lost the ability to speak and we resorted to communication by spelling out words by pointing to an alphabet board. We had agreed to fight this disease to the end so I was totally dismayed when she spelt out “Let me go peacefully”. I cried “No, no, no – we agreed to fight this”.
Later when I relayed this to the oncologist in her presence, she vigorously shook her head and in sign language said that she had changed her mind and wanted to continue the fight. This was only for my benefit. Alas, a day later she slipped into a coma and on 22nd December, quietly went away. No fuss.
That was My Ali.