There can’t be very many people either inside the running world or even outside of it who don’t know the name Nick Bester. It seems Nick has been around forever and those with a good memory will remember that Nick won Comrades in 1991 on the down run but he was always there or there about and has a total of 9 Gold medals to his credit and a 6 further silvers. Then on top of that you will find his name on the Gunga Din team trophy several times. Gunga Din of course the team trophy for the winning team at Comrades.
I was able to pin Nick down between flights during his busy schedule to have a chat to him about the man and his life both as a runner and a manager.
DJ: It seems that you have been around the running world forever but you were in fact a late starter and almost mid twenties when you started.
NB: I was 24 when I started running and I started running to try to get fitter for rugby because my dream was to play rugby for the Springboks but after my first race where I finished 6th out a big field of finishers I realised that I had the ability to run and that’s how it all started.
DJ: Over the years you have taken part in various different disciplines and you have won in various different disciplines but you always seem to come back to road running. Is that where your heart lies?
NB: No, not really. I come back to road running because that’s where I’m needed but my heart lies in multi discipline sports like triathlon, biathlon and that sort of thing. I love those events.
DJ: You have one Comrades win to your credit but I think it should have been more. You have three second places but the one that I really think that got away from you was 1994 when you were much, much stronger than Alberto Salazar towards the finish and catching him. Was that your closest?
NB: I think my best was actually the 1997 race that Charl Matteus won. He passed me to take the lead after Tollgate with a couple of Kms to go. I ended up just a couple of minutes behind him at the finish and that’s the race that I think I should have won but it just went wrong for me. The 1994 race with Salazar was a good one but I left it too late before I made my move and it was my heart rate monitor that threw me out but without doubt it was 1997 that was the one that got away from me.
DJ: What you are doing now is very different from actual running. Are you enjoying yourself?
NB: I am enjoying myself. I get the opportunity of meeting with athletes, sponsors and administrators and get to see the sport from every angle so it’s interesting and I’m involved with development and that’s very rewarding as it is when our club athletes come through to fill top positions in races and especially major races. I’m also meeting some very good people but at the same time I am still training as I can’t imagine life without being out there working out.
DJ: How do you respond to your critics who say that a lot of your runners in some major races like Comrades for example are not South Africans and shouldn’t actually be competing in the colours of your club and that you recruit them purely for the glory and the money? I have even had a suggestion that the Gunga Din trophy for the winning team in Comrades should be scrapped.
NB: Athletes are free to run for any club they want to run for and from our point of view the more exposure a sponsor can get from athletes performing well whether they are South African or international, the better it is for the athletes who belong to that club, and I’m talking here specifically about the South African athletes because then the sponsor is encouraged to continue supporting the sport in terms of sponsorship which then benefits the athlete and it enables us to put more into the club for the members of that club and for the athletes who belong to that club. So the international athletes who run for our club and highlight our club at the big events are actually like our “advertising department” to benefit our local athletes.
As far as things like the Gunga Din are concerned, I can’t imagine Comrades without Gunga Din but in any event, those team competitions are only open to South African resident runners so if an international runner in our club colours were to win Comrades he wouldn’t count towards the Gunga Din if he wasn’t resident in South Africa so those arguments don’t actually apply anyway.
DJ: Almost every day we are seeing a higher and higher level of professionalism coming into the sport in South Africa and I think this is simply following world trends but where do see the future of road running. Do you think that there is place for the professional and the amateur to be running in the same events and by the same rules?
NB: This has been happening for quite a long time now and there is now reason why it shouldn’t continue happening. As long as the race organisers are catering for both the professional and the amateur runners as they are doing at present I don’t see any problem. This is what is happening internationally so no reason at all why it shouldn’t be happening here.
DJ: Where to for Nick Bester in the next 5 or 10 years? Do you see yourself growing and leading the era of professionalism in road running and where would you like to see it in the future?
NB: I think that road running in South Africa is very healthy right now and you can see this by how fast entries for races are filling for pre entry races and I would like to think that I have played a part in that and would like to continue to do that provided that politics doesn’t get involved in road running because if that happens it’ll signal big problems for the sport as it has for other sports in this country and even for some events where politics has become involved. When or if, that happens then I call it a day.
I honestly don’t think I could finish off this chapter on Nick without recounting a personal story that happened after his win in 1991. I had finished my reporting on the race for 702 Talk Radio and was asked by the producer of the Saturday evening Sports Talk show on Radio 702 if I could line Nick up for an interview with John Robbie. I tracked Nick down and he said it would be no problem at all and told me where he was staying – and in those days the winners simply didn’t do that.
I said I would get the studio to call him and he would be first up on the show and all was arranged. At about 5:45pm I had a call from the studio to say that Nick had checked out of his hotel that morning and had I any idea where he was for the interview? I didn’t have a clue as I thought he’d be at his hotel.
6pm and my phone rang again and it was again the studio asking if I had managed to find him because this was our lead story for the show and they had been running a promo for the interview all afternoon. I had no idea where he was.
At about 6:05pm the phone in my hotel room rang and it was Nick. He had indeed checked out of his hotel that morning and decided to travel home to Pretoria, all the while remembering his promise to me and he had eventually reached Harrismith and had found a steakhouse, gone in and explained to the manager what the problem was and had called me from the manager’s office in order to do his promised interview. This in the days before cellphones.
A huge relief for me and the folk in the studio in Johannesburg but I don’t know why I even worried about it. In all the years I have known him Nick has always kept his promises to me.