CAPE TOWN - They did not want him to run. Organisers of the 1979 Durban Athletic Club Marathon had been warned about Johnny Halberstadt.
While his participation undoubtedly elevated the quality of the race, it introduced controversy in an era when protocol and correctness were often valued more highly than athletics greatness.
Halberstadt, rated by Bruce Fordyce as the greatest distance runner South Africa has ever seen, had enjoyed some of his best months in athletics, including winning national titles in half marathon and cross country and placing second in the Comrades Marathon, and was looking to run a fast marathon in Durban.
He should have been the race promoter’s dream but this was the spring of ’79 and Halberstadt had become one of the most controversial athletes in the country’s history.
For the Durban race organisers, his participation was a liability.
A week earlier he had had the temerity to turn down a prized Springbok blazer in protest against the treatment of a black athlete, and four months earlier had challenged the strict amateur rules of Comrades.
But Halberstadt was a licensed athlete and had not been barred from competing. There was little the organisers could do to prevent him from racing, leaving the Joburg athlete to fund every penny of his costs to compete.
“I had felt in good shape at the time and had been looking for an opportunity to run a fast marathon,” said Halberstadt this week from his home in Boulder, Colorado, where he and his family had moved in the 1990s.
“So I didn’t worry too much about the lack of support and made my way down to Durban and ran the race.”
He crossed the line in 2hr 12min 19sec - the fastest marathon on the African continent at the time - to round off a stellar year and took home R250, the maximum allowed at the time.
Halberstadt rates his cross country victory in George that year as one of the top three of his career, alongside his record-breaking Two Oceans 56km win in 1981 when he ran a world best 50km en route and his victory in the US NCAA 10 000m against a strong international field in 1971.
“An exceptionally strong field lined up for the cross country champs that year,” recalled Halberstadt. “Mathews Batswadi was favourite to win, although Matthews ‘Loop en Val’ Motswarateu and Ewald Bonzet were also capable of taking the title.
“After heavy rains, it was a mud-bath, and I took a calculated chance by going out hard from the start.
“Under those conditions it was always going to be tough to overtake, and the others were sizing each other up, running cautiously. I quickly opened a lead, and by the time the others woke up, it was too late!”
Having won the title, he was an automatic Bok selection, but caused a stir when he turned down the honour, valuing his life principles more.
“I did not understand how they could award ‘Loop en Val’ Springbok colours the year before and then deny him a South African passport to take up a sports scholarship in the US, claiming he was a Bophuthatswana citizen.
“The athletics bosses treated him shabbily, and it had a significant impact on his performances. I just felt it unfair and inconsistent, and felt I could not accept the blazer.”
Comrades controversy revolved around a hotel chain logo on Halberstadt’s cap during the race.
While the story of the race was the images of Halberstadt lying at the side of the road, powerless to respond as Piet Vorster swept past to victory, the front-page headlines the next day focused on attempts to disqualify Halberstadt for flouting the strict amateur code.
“That’s fine, I told them," recalled Halberstadt, “just as long as you then disqualify every runner who ran with some logo on their cap! And that was the end of the story.”
While Halberstadt excelled in distances ranging from the mile to the Comrades, where he placed second twice, he regards the standard marathon as his favourite distance, and is enthusiastic about the growth and development of the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon.
“I ran my third marathon in the US in 1971 at just 21. I had been given a year off formal NCAA athletics, and I signed up for the Boston Marathon at the last minute. It was a hot day, and that suited me more than others, and I gradually moved through the field from about 20th position to finish third.
“My fastest marathon was 2:11.46 at Chicago in 1982, but the SA authorities did not recognise it, claiming I was running as a professional!
“If it wasn’t for South Africa’s isolation, I would certainly have focused on the marathon and represented SA at the Olympics, rather than turning to ultras,” admitted Halberstadt.
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“It's fantastic that South Africa now has the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon, recognised as a gold label event by the IAAF and where African marathoners, essentially the best in the world, can race without having to fly long distances.
“There is so much talent in South Africa, it just needs to be harnessed and channelled correctly.
“A race like the Cape Town Marathon can help by motivating athletes through incentives and opportunities, far more than we enjoyed.”
* Independent Media is the official media partner of the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon.