Johannesburg - For an institution that prides itself as being The Ultimate Human Race, the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) is fast contriving to turn itself into an elitist event while, ironically, alienating the elite runners.
Their announcement that they are increasing registration fees for the 2022 edition by 100%, while cutting down the prize money for winners by almost half, came across as an institution intent on 'downgrading' their event.
Granted, we all know just how financially devastating the impact of Covid-19 has been, but to expect runners to fork out more money to participate in a race and then tell the potential winners that they will earn way less than they did three years ago when the race was run normally is just not on.
As it is, the R260 000 prize money for this year's winners is not as much as what Gift Kelehe banked when he became champion seven years ago.
The CMA's attempt at justifying their ridiculous new stance just didn't wash, their vice chairman Les Burnard making a feeble attempt at explaining how hamstrung they are financially.
As Kelehe said at the launch, the CMA should have used the last two years to strive to source sponsorships.
After all, they had the two virtual runs which many athletes registered for and because they didn't have to incur costs of running a normal race, surely those registration fees went a long way towards boosting their reserves.
To then cut prize money as much as they have is a smack in the face of the elite runners who spend money to put themselves in line for the title.
In a country crazy about ultra running, the Comrades Marathon is the dream goal of most top athletes and many of them go to great lengths to prepare themselves for a shot at glory.
A lot of them take off from work, often without pay, to spend months in camps getting ready for the trot up or down between the KwaZulu-Natal cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg.
A former champion I spoke to confirmed that he spends upwards of R100 000 over the six months that he takes to prepare for the race. An athlete's manager corroborated this, saying it has never cost him less than R50 000 to prepare his athlete. And while the prize money may have previously appeared substantial, it still was not in line with what goes into getting ready.
His prize money was shared with his coach and manager leaving him with not much to show for his great efforts.
In recent years, Kelehe and many others have justifiably been calling for an increase in prize money for the race that is world renowned and attracts competitors from across the globe.
A member of the CMA reasoned that they were not the only ones reducing prize money because “even the major marathons have done so” as if copying the others makes their actions right.
Sure, the CMA has said that the drop in prize money for winners is only temporary and that they could well go back to the previous prize in the future. That could well be. But what they have done for this year is going to alienate many runners from the event.
Preparing for Comrades is an all year undertaking and with victory not guaranteed and a finish in the top 10 providing so little in terms of financial gain, the race should surely be paying way more than it does.
What I find incredible is that the custodians of road running in the country, Athletics South Africa (ASA), see nothing wrong with the latest developments.
ASA president James Moloi was at the launch and spoke proudly about how he has ensured that all the major races are going to be televised live. That means a shot in the arm for races and one suspects that
Comrades itself is due for an increase in TV revenue this year.
As custodians of the sport, ASA no doubt would love to see it growing and attracting more athletes to take it up seriously. And there can be no denying that the attraction to a sport these days is its ability to provide the practitioner with a livelihood.
Big and popular as it is, athletics in our country does not pay well enough for one to do it full-time.
Of the so-called elites in our country, very few are full time professionals. In the ultra running category, it is actually only Gerda Steyn and Bongumusa Mthembu who are known to make their living out of running. The rest hold other jobs.
Yet if the likes of Comrades and ASA worked hard at moving away from the amateur-era they seem to be stuck in and strived to go professional and attract great sponsors, we could well see more athletes becoming full time pros. Which, and it goes without saying, will result in better performances on the road
Another point that CMA have to address is the issue of 'records'. As usual there is extra money to be made by athletes who beat the standing best times.
For this year's Down Run from Maritzburg to Durban, male runners will double up their winnings if they run faster than David Gatebe's 5:18.19 from 2016.
It is a near impossible ask for the simple reason that Gatebe ran that time over a shorter course.
Logic would suggest that CMA considers looking for a new best time on the new route.
The Comrades Marathon is a revered institution of South Africa and the sooner those in charge of it realise that they are there to serve the running community and not alienate them as they currently are, the better.
The crazy increase of registration fees and cutting of prize money is just not on. Especially not when Ngcobo described theirs as “the richest race”.