Comrades 2008 and SA athletics  //  Russia’s ticket to wealth, and the economy of running success

17 Jun 2008 Posted by

I have no idea what the average salary is in Russia. I’m “reliably” informed by Wikipedia that it’s $640 per year. I don’t know much about the typical Russian’s financial position, other than what I read in the news and Time magazine, and I won’t claim to be an expert in Russian-South African relations.

But one thing I do know is that every year in June, a group of Russian athletes come to South Africa, to take on the greatest ultra-marathon in the world, and every year, they leave with their pockets lined with Rands and gold, until the next year. This year, Leonid Shvetsov, courtesy of his second consecutive title and race record, walked away with just a shade under R500,000 ($60,000) for his efforts. That’s seven times what the average Russian is earning, and by my calculation, certainly not money to be sneezed at.

It’s hard money, sure, because 87 km of racing over that course is no mean feat, but it makes Comrade Shvetsov pretty close to a millionaire thanks to the race.

And that’s great – what a pleasure it is to see such a fabulous athlete plying his trade in SA. He’s the most majestic, utterly dominant runner the Comrades has seen. He’s so dominant, in fact, that unless someone emerges in the next two years, I can see the race losing quite a big following as a result of the predictability of it all.

On the women’s side, that happened long ago – the Nurgalieva twins, Olesya and Elena, have also made themselves a fair fortune in SA. Every year they come out here, and invariably, come first and second (usually, Elena is first), and must have made a few million out of the South African ultra-running scene in the last few years.

Where are the SA runners? Gone back to 1970

But this post is not about the contribution South Africa makes to Russia’s GDP every June. Rather, it’s about the fact that South African runners are not standing in their way. There have, admittedly, been some great triumphs on the “down” run – first Kelehe, then Nhlapo and then Ngomane, who all won the down run, to choruses of praise about the “South African renaissance”. Unfortunately, these athletes would never again scale those lofty heights, and much like a gunshot, they eventually dissipate into the night as an ever-softening echo.

But on the whole, ever since the Russians first identified the goldmine that is Comrades, they’ve plundered the race with little opposition. Part of that is that they bring some magnificent athletes out here – Shvetsov is without doubt the best we’ve seen, a magnificent runner who has yanked the race into a new level. But a big part is also that South African running is in a steady and uninterrupted state of decline, and the occasional success of a talented runner happens in-spite of, rather than because of, the running system in this country. Sadly, that success provides the excuse to let things slide (“It can’t be so bad”, they say), and we’ll eventually realise that we’ve slid too far to ever recover.

A cursory glance of the Comrades results since the race began reveals a few startling statistics. Perhaps the worst of these is the following:

In 1977, the race was won by Alan Robb, in a time of 5:47:00. Since that race, the winning time has very, very rarely been slower than 5:40. Perhaps most amazingly, most of those winning times were by South African men!

In other words, between 1977 and 2008, 30 years worth of South African runners have been capable of running 5:40 or faster. One year was an anomaly, when Jetman Msutu won the race in 5:46, but we must remind ourselves that he actually finished second to Charl Mattheus who was later DQ’d for drug use. But on the whole, South Africa’s best finisher has run around 5:30 to 5:35, be it Mattheus and Bester in the 1990′s, or Fordyce in the 1980′s. That time, had it been run yesterday, would have been enough to finish second, and actually make a race out of it. Remember, the second place finisher was Jaroslaw Janicki, fully 14 minutes behind Shvetsov.

Instead, we got a best SA athlete who finished in just under 5:47, the slowest time by an SA runner since 1977, and on a day where the record fell (no excuses from the conditions, then).

How South African athletics pays for mediocrity

The reasons for this startling demise (which is, I might add, present across all running events in SA, not just the ultras) are vast, complex and probably require that we set up a blog all of its own to discuss. But consider for a moment that in the 1980′s, SA had faster 10km runners than we do now – the world record is a full minute faster, but we’re stuck. We might call it “Why South African running is failing”, and spend the next two years discussing it. However, we won’t do that to you, but I do just want to make two quick points here.

First of all, there has been a growing trend in recent times to incentivize local athletes by offering a special prize to the first SA runner to finish the race. This gesture, applauded by many as an effective tactic to boost local running and to stimulate interest in the event, is actually, in my opinion, a long term failure strategy, which actually undermines long term growth.

Why? Because it incentivizes mediocrity. It says the following to the typical South African runner: “Don’t worry about Leonid Shvetsov and his 5:24 record performances. Don’t worry about winning and being excellent, because we’ll pay you to run 5:47 and finish 5th”.

Any rational athlete, given the choice between an extra 30 minutes of training per day and the option to run a few more races each year is going to respond by saying “Sure, no problem. In 2009, my goal is to run about 5:40, because I’ve now seen that if I do, I might win a lot of money”. Note that they are not aiming for 5:21, or even 5:25, because that is difficult – more training, more suffering. The prize money actually dis-incentivizes excellence.

In this same category are prizes that are awarded to runners who reach landmarks on the course first – the so-called “Hotspot prizes” otherwise known as primes elsewhere. On Sunday, money was awarded, for example, to the first runner to reach halfway and then finish the race. The result was that two athletes broke away and raced each other up to the halfway mark. The “winner”, Charles Tjiane, celebrated at the halfway mark, and then soon started walking. One commentator says he wasn’t running for that prize, but seriously, how do you go from running 3:00/km, to celebrating, to walking, in the space of kilometers, unless your mental approach is to plunder the “hotspots” and save your energy?

Now, he still walked away with a nice pay-day for their efforts. And best of all, these runners get to race again sooner, because rather than racing 87km, they raced perhaps 50km and then merely finished the race. But they represent two athletes, both with the possible potential to win the race, who have instead sacrificed that possibility in favour of a smaller, but more assured, pay-day (it’s assured because Shvetsov and the big guns don’t care about it, so don’t race for it).

It was then pointed out to me that an athlete who wins three “hotspot” prizes in the race can earn himself R33 000. That is the same prize money as the 5th place finisher in the whole race!

Now, is there not something flawed in that model…?

Wrap-up: More on SA running to come

There’s a lot more to be said about SA athletics, but because I know we have an international audience, these kinds of posts will be used sparingly (so don’t worry!). But, for those who want to know the key problem in SA running, read this post (SA athletics on Trial), written about a year ago.

But we’ll leave it for now, and turn instead to matters of “global importance”, like weight loss!

Until next time!


This post is part of the thread: Marathon Analysis – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

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