JUST ANOTHER POOR BOY: BEHIND THE SCENES ON THE ATHLETICS TRACK

I was a sports fanatic at school, and I shared the same problems as thousands of other pupils who had the talent and ambition – but not the essentials that only money can buy – to get to the top in the world of athletics, cricket, or football.
The problem for me was that my parents fell in the ‘very poor’ household bracket.
When I think back, it’s seems quite funny now – but it wasn’t then.
Take athletics….
You’d think that to be a star on the track, all you needed was a pair of legs that were fit, a sharp turn of speed and, in my case (I was an 800m specialist), a big pair of lungs.
Not really.
I also needed running spikes, which my parents couldn’t afford. And there was no way my soft feet would withstand the hard cinder of the Green Point Track. So, I had to make do with South Peninsula High’s spikes, which I suspect were the world’s oldest, the most uncomfortable – and the stinkest. You had to wear them with socks if you didn’t want them to shave your heels raw, not to mention avoiding catching a rash.
It led to a bizarre situation for me at the A-Section championships in 1968….
But first, some background information.
My socks wardrobe at home consisted of two pairs of grey school socks and one pair white socks (for Sunday School). There was no way I was going to run in the school socks, so I took along the white pair.
I don’t think it would have been a problem for me if another 800m athlete from SP, running in an age group immediately below me (and a race before me), a guy called Trevor ‘Holle’ Abrahams, had not decided to make a big political statement: he took his place in his race, wearing a pair of black socks and a single black glove.
It was the time of ‘black power’.
I don’t think he won the race, or even finished in the minor places. But that didn’t matter. His ‘fuck-you’ at apartheid caused a sensation in the stands. He became an instant hero.
And so, there I was, lining up next … in my pure white socks. What do you call it? An anti-climax?
It was a miracle that I won, I tried to tell myself afterwards – because I thought it was a victory against all the odds.
The look Richard Rive, our coach, threw at me after the race, had daggers attached to it. I swear I could smell blood mixed with the Deep Heat.
My victory earned me a place in the Western Province team to take part in the South African championships in Durban. It was a star-studded side, containing athletes such as Herman Gibbs, Ivan Masters, Alex Abercrombie, Johan Wippenaar, Connie Boltman, Lynne Eagles and Naomi Sylvester.
But I didn’t have a track suit, and there was no way my parents could afford to buy me one….
One thing I must say about the teachers who ran athletics: they went more than the extra mile for many of the province’s athletes.
A few days before the team was due to leave for Durban, I received a phone call and a message to go to an address in Wynberg and say ‘Hello’ very nicely to a Mr Zachariah Simpson, who’d have a surprise for me.
Off I went, to be greeted by Mr Simpson, who had a tracksuit in hand. It was a spare owned by his son, Reggie, who was also in the team.
I was, as British football players often say, over the moon.
It was the first time I’d ever pulled a track pants over my bum, and I was first in my group of friends to have a track suit. I wondered all around Heathfield at odd hours with this red tracksuit.
Did I care it was a Harold Cressy tracksuit?
Not a damn.
I decided after returning from Durban, where the management team put me up with a rich family, the Kissoon-Singhs. I was growing up fast. It was the first time I had ever set foot in a double-storey house – and the first time I could remember having real butter on my toast.
On the track, I competed outside my age group (there being no Under-16 division at the championships) and picked up bronze in my 800m a race, dominated by a brilliant Western Province athlete named Wilson Klaasen.
But the tracksuit was never far from my mind. I made up my mind that I had to have it – and the best way to do this was never to set foot in Wynberg again.
Alas, it didn’t work. A few days after my return, Reggie came knocking at my door with a simple request: ‘Can I have my tracksuit back please?’
I went to the drawer in which I had hidden it and returned it to him with a heavy heart and an almost tearful ‘thank you’.
Many years later, I forgave myself for trying to be skelm, saying: ‘You were young then, son.’
• Next time, I’ll tell you about my career as a cricketer.