IOL's Athletics reporter Ockert de Villiers. Photo: Masi Losi

It is easy to get excited, get carried away and hail the upswing of interest in track and field as a new dawn for the sport in South Africa.

As a long-suffering dedicated athletics journalist, I remain circumspect that the seven lean years are well and truly behind us.

There have been clear signs over the past two years that track and field in the country could be entering a new golden age.

The born-frees like Anaso Jobodwana, Caster Semenya, Luvo Manyonga, Akani Simbine and Wayde van Niekerk have been holding the lamp at the end of that dark tunnel.

But their performances have largely been across the ocean far away from the eyes of youngsters in townships who are desperately looking for role models.

Some of these athletes have been given the chance to shine while others kicked in doors to gain opportunities.

This week’s announcement that Liquid Telecom would sponsor the Athletix Grand Prix Series marked the first time in five years that local track and field managed to get corporate backing.

The argument has been - and will hold water for some time to come - that the country’s top athletes make it to the pinnacle of the sport in spite of the national federation.

The sentiment seems to be slowly changing and there are signs that ASA is adopting an athlete-centred approach.

The inaugural Athletix Grand Prix meeting in Roodepoort promised to be a truly international event.

It fell short in some areas, particularly in the field events where the general standard is below par.

While South Africa boast a few shining lights in some events, the depth of the events remains a concern.

But track and field are cyclical and where South Africa use to be a middle-distance powerhouse our athletes battle to make international teams.

South African sprinting has taken the world by storm almost completely out of the blue.

The series holds immense promise and with organisers trying to assemble qualify local an international fields it can only get better if they get it right.

Local athletes have been starved of good quality competition on local soil in recent years with the national championships offering the only opportunity of the best taking each other on.

Racing or competing against good quality opposition only brings out the best in athletes and that was evident on Thursday.

The men’s 200m race was one of the best half-lap sprints on home soil bar last year’s national championships with world bronze medallist Anaso Jobodwana and Clarence Munyai posting some of the best times of their careers.

In the women’s 400m Botswana’s Amantle Montsho brought star quality to her neighbouring country dragging local favourite Justine Palframan along for one of the fastest times of her career.

Youth high jump world champion Breyton Poole got to test himself against the Mpho Links and Chris Moleya, who are all at a similar level.

The result was a fiercely competitive event and the country’s three top high jumpers will only be richer if they get more of the same in future.

The series still has a long way to go in assembling a truly world-class field and next week’s second leg in Pretoria promises to be even better.

It is certainly a step in the right direction and all involved, including the much-maligned ASA, should be complimented.

Saturday Star

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