Comrades may be back – but it has a mild case of Covid cramp
After a two-year hiatus, South Africa’s century-old ultramarathon makes a triumphant return this weekend, albeit with some significant changes.
“The Comrades Marathon teaches us discipline, dedication and devotion on a whole other level. It gives new meaning to the things we hold dear; it helps us rediscover the joy of running, making new friends and being part of an international community of runners,” says Oageng Moiloa, one of the more than 14,000 participants in this year’s edition of the iconic ultramarathon.
Moiloa, who, according to the race’s website, ran his first Comrades at the ripe age of 55 in 2014, before being hooked after failing to finish on his first attempt, captures what makes the century-old race so special.
First run in 1921, the Comrades Marathon is the oldest ultramarathon in the world and has been dubbed the “ultimate human race”.
It’s been a long and arduous journey back to full functionality for the Comrades that is being run today.
Both the 2020 and 2021 races had to be cancelled after the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across the world. It was the first time since World War 2 that the race had not taken place. Three years on, the Comrades has made a comeback, with athletes – mostly from South Africa – entering in their numbers.
“It’s vital. It’s part of South Africa’s history. Obviously, I’m biased. We’ve got our Banyana Banyana team doing so well, but the Comrades is an iconic event and I’m glad that it is back,” serial Comrades winner Bruce Fordyce told DM168.
KwaZulu-Natal, which is the home of the race, will host athletes from countries such as the UK, Zimbabwe, India, Brazil, Germany and the US – each with their own intentions of conquering the 90.2km trek between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.
Increase and decrease
The annual race alternates between the two cities in what is known as the “down run” (from Maritzburg to Durban) and the “up run” (from Durban to Maritzburg).
Fordyce, who won the event a record nine times – eight of which were consecutive – during his prime, said he was pleased the race had finally returned.
“If it had gone one more year without being run … that might have been terminal for the event,” Fordyce said.
Sport, like many other sectors, was heavily affected by the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Comrades Marathon Association had no choice but to scrap the event for two consecutive years.
With many businesses affected by the economic fallout of the pandemic, the Comrades lost some of its sponsors. Others opted to pull out of the event because of the uncertainty surrounding the future of the iconic marathon.
When the Covid-19 situation eased up and it became possible to start planning for the race after its extended hiatus, the Comrades Marathon Association announced that the entrance fee would be increased to R1,200 – double the previous entry fee.
The fee hike was heavily criticised as exclusionary, with many South Africans who might have wished to participate simply unable to afford the increased fee.
Elite athletes were also upset by the news that this year’s prize money would be cut as part of the event’s attempts to balance pulling itself out of the dire straits brought on by Covid-19 and trying to preserve the future of the prestigious ultramarathon.
The association announced earlier this year that the revised prize money for the 90km endurance test would see the winners in both the men’s and women’s sections pocket R260,000. The 2019 winners each walked away with R500,000.
Second- and third-placed runners will pocket R130,000 and R90,000 respectively this year. The male and female runners who finish 10th will each take home just R12,000.
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Needless to say, athletes were not too pleased when the association made the announcement about the prize money purse. “Three years ago, I said Comrades should be paying winners R1-million. Instead of moving up, we are going backward,” 2015 Comrades winner Gift Kelehe told The Sowetan in response to the announcement that the prize money would be halved.
“It’s a rip-off because, remember, you are getting that money and you still have to pay tax 16%, your manager 10%.
“You need to buy supplements, R1,000 for entry fee, accommodation and you still have to travel.”
The reduced prize money was as a result of the events of the past two years, according to Delaine Cool, marketing and communications manager for the Comrades.
“The Comrades Marathon had to take a few drastic steps in order to preserve the financial resources that we have … to make this year’s race happen. It’s no secret that we’re also experiencing a budget deficit,” Cool told DM168.
“Over the past two years, sponsors wanted a return on investment for what they put into the Comrades. If there’s no race, there’s no sponsorship.”
Cool said that the 2022 edition had to make some changes so the iconic race could hopefully bounce back financially and find the balance between functioning and making it worthwhile for participants.
“We have had a few sponsors who stood by us in hard times. But we also understood that we needed to be able to host the race in order to give sponsors their fair due and return on investment,” Cool stated.
“We’re still facing financial difficulty. Hopefully after this year’s race and going into next year, we can somehow break even. “But it’s going to be another tough year going forward. Though we’re up for it.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.