Where Are The ‘Varsity Runners?

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By Bruce Fordyce

Does anyone know what has happened to the university road runners? As far as I can see they’ve vanished or certainly they have become as endangered a species as Africa’s rhinos.

20 years ago the universities were a breeding ground for road running talent now the students seem to have vanished. The gold and blue of Wits university has disappeared and along with it the blue of UCT, the purple of Rhodes, the green and blue of Natal, and the maroon of the Maties.

It seems a pity because the Comrades, for instance, boasts some student winners. I won four times in Wits colours and was very proud to do so. Dave Levick won in UCT colours as did Isavel Roche-Kelly, and Lindsay Weight won for Natal. The N.U.A.C. trophy was a trophy awarded at the Comrades prize giving to the best university team, and winning it was a serious matter for students. I wonder if the C.M.A. is aware of its existence. I shudder to think that it is probably gathering dust at the back of a trophy cabinet somewhere or acting as a vase for a bunch of flowers on some shelf.

But it isn’t just about the winners. Varsity teams dominated many road and cross-country races. It mattered to students to add “athletic team” to their C.V.s.

At my first Comrades, in 1977, the starting procedure included the Wits war cry bellowed loudly before Max Trimborn’s cockerel crow. It was a very raucous war cry because there were 75 of us running!

Now if I see blue and yellow/gold colours on the road I know they are the colours of Nelspruit athletic club, not Wits University.

Why have the students vanished? Perhaps road running is no longer seen as being “ cool”. Perhaps other sports like basketball, and water polo have replaced running as the in thing to do.

Perhaps we have lazier, fatter students?

I’m puzzled.

Does anyone have any ideas or suggestions about how to bring the youngsters back.

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33 Responses to Where Are The ‘Varsity Runners?

  1. Justin February 17, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    It’s the dop Bruce….it’s the dop!

  2. Elandre February 17, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

    Hi.i’m a varsity student running in my blue and yellow for UWC and very proud of it.

  3. Wynn February 17, 2012 at 1:22 pm #

    I think that varsity students have other priorities and I’m not referring to their studies. Running take a lot of time and hard work, the kind of discipline and dedication that many youth of today do not posess. It’s a very sad and depressing thought.

  4. Alanem February 17, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

    My personal observation:
    One generation ago, we rode bicycles, played in parks, and enjoyed playing sport at school. It was quite natural, and fun, to participate in sport at varsity.
    Alas, times have changed. Children now get driven to school, play in cyberspace, and might play compulsory sport at school. The emphasis is more on winning than enjoying the game, and the training becomes too rigorous. They get to varsity, and are glad that sport is not compusory. School may have taken out some of the enjoyment.
    Of course, there are some who continue with sport, and I applaud them. Is road running cool amongst the youngsters of today? I think it is, but only for the shorter distances.

  5. Glenda February 17, 2012 at 10:32 pm #

    As a wits undergrad, i was told by other students thats wits AC did track running, so i trained on my own. While i’ll never be fast enough to win any race, perhaps other potential great runners found the same thing.
    I’m now a Varsity Kudus runner (mainly wits postgrads and alumni) and about 1/3 of the club ran comrades – we showed up in force, although none of us are fast enough to win. Our version of blue and yellow was there & alot of us are still (postgrad) students. We have so many experienced comrades runners amoungst us, perhaps, politcs aside, the university athletics clubs need some help & inspiration from the old boys & girls!

  6. Glen February 18, 2012 at 4:28 am #

    Comrades is not for Varsity Students. Comrades is for over 40′s.

    • Roald February 20, 2012 at 9:14 am #

      Bullocks….I had a chat to a young lady aged 24 last night at church……having allready run her first 42 in FEb, planning to do the Deloitte 42 this weekend, and aiming for her 1st Comrades in May

      • Tim March 9, 2012 at 4:36 am #

        And her second in June?

    • wietse August 24, 2014 at 3:20 pm #

      Both my daughters, Maties students age 21 and 23 did there fist Comrades this year, Both are above average student and make time for training. I think perhaps the problem lies with parents that don’t want their children believe they can achieve something as great as this.

  7. pierre February 19, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

    I am a student at UP and I am now training for my first comrades. For me the races are to expensive, to pay up to R70 for n 21 km is to much for me,that’s half of my monthly budget, can’t they give student discount for marthons? The biggest problem is its to expensive for us students to compete.

    • wietse August 24, 2014 at 3:26 pm #

      I agree Pierre, Road running is becoming a Yuppie sport. Shoes are also way overpriced, it will cost you on an average of R1-00 plus per km when you are training and you will use at lease 3 pairs in the months leading up to Comrades.

  8. Vicky February 19, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    I agree with what has been said added to which there are perhaps also more choices today. Twenty years ago cycling in any form was not really an option,nor was trail running.

    • Roald February 20, 2012 at 9:21 am #

      Hi Bruce….I tend to agree. My dad was involved in athletics in the then South Transvaal Athletic Association, and most of the then talented athletes were late highschool and varsity students. I can remember going with him coaching at JCE, and as a young school boy joined a huge group, running up SWEETHOOGTE (I believe you are famliar with this hill!!). As the year progressed from January so did the size of the group.

  9. Johan February 20, 2012 at 9:02 am #

    Also agree that it may help if there is a LOT more marketing of the sport amongst varsity students and scholars. Giving discounted entry fees to scholars and students may go a looong way in getting them on the road. I listened to the president of ASA saying on TV yesterday that he is positive that it will take only 6 months to get athletics right in SA. Bollocks!!! It will take many many moons and a collosal sponsor. Then after school there are the studies, and the dop, and all that – from which you only recover in your late thirties. Conclusion is that with our current lifestyle you only get to run comrades at age 40 when you are properly senile.

  10. Michelle February 20, 2012 at 10:43 am #

    I recently sat on a varsity’s SRC, and held the sports portfolio… participation in sports is at an all time low, membership numbers may be high, but a vast majority of those members are ‘drinking members’ they join purely for the social elements, when I say social I don’t mean a good bit of banter while out for a sail, run, cycle; I mean for the parties. should a sports club fail to have a reputation for legendary parties, it also fails to attract social members a healthy number of social members (healthy only because their membership fees are the club’s bread and butter).
    the next biggest problem is that very few universities support the serious student athlete, whether it is academically (time off to attend a training camp, exemption from tests to go to nationals… Natalie du Toit was a student at UCT, she was awarded sportsperson of the year, but was academically excluded because a lecturer failed to grant her exemption for a major gala, it was a pre-olympics year if memory serves), they are not offered adequate financial incentive (last i checked a full varsity sports scolarship for sports other than rugby was R9000pa that only covers one course!), financial and administrative support to the clubs is often poor (sports clubs, other that their members fees are given a grant per year from sports administration, this grant will be allocated from the sporting sector’s lump sum amount and will be allocated largely by popularity of the sport, i.e rugby gets nearly half the lump sum, rowing, hockey and sailing share roughly another quarter of it, and the final quarter is distributed amongst the other 30+ sports clubs, struggling to keep afloat, they cant pay decent coaches, they cant afford decent training aides and they cant afford transport to competition, the individual then spends a further fortune every year if they are serious about competing, most potential stars don’t have the bucks, so focus on their academics instead) and there is not nearly enough recognition for sporting achievement (the rugby results will be all over within minutes of a game, but if you want to know how the athletics club faired at comrades you have to ask each of them, individually :/ ).
    the point of my essay (sorry) is that university sports in South Africa is in an appalling state, and if we want student running to come back into it’s heyday we cannot rely on the university administration to realise our hopes for us, we need to put the incentive there ourselves (as alumni), by offering scholarships, funding sports clubs, sponsoring trophies/prize monies… and it wouldn’t hurt if races offered a prize for first placed students either.

  11. Ari February 20, 2012 at 10:56 am #

    As a student who has been in the system for a few years now, I’d like to add my perspective.

    While ‘dop’ and ‘other priorities’ may play some role, an overriding component, which I feel may explain this decline, is the lack of university pride and student involvement. For instance, I (and I’m quite certain others feel the same way) would rather spend only the required amount of time at university. No more. Therefore, when it comes to running, I would rather join a running school closer to home that has no university affiliation. This is exactly what I have done, and it suits me perfectly. I race under their colours, have embraced their ethos, and I enjoy the overall camaraderie. This is a sad observation because it relates back to my first comment about university pride. I feel there is no sense of pride or family at all. A certain ambivalence exists which ultimately deters student runners from joining university teams. As an afterthought, I have actually encountered very few runners of university-going-age. Perhaps, running is just not as popular as it once was and is experiencing a downward-trend with this age group at the moment. As an open-ended conclusion, might I suggest that students are perhaps not interested in running as a sport, and if they are ‘we would rather run with our own schools in the morning, do what we have to do at university from 9am – 5 pm, then go home and play Playstation’.

    • Kathleen December 1, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

      Hey Ari

      I agree! The participation leaves much to be considered, and I’ve also just joined my local club, because it was just better in terms of team spirit and accomodating everyone. I wonder why on earth don’t universities even have beginner running clubs? Or clubs where multiple groups at different experiences go run regularly and headed by a likeminded students. And even if fees are a problem, even R50 per year should not be too much if the club requires finances. I would love to join a university club where I can train and have fun, and compete if I so wish, but without the uber-competitiveness or lack of pride that you see so often. And at Stelelnbosch University – running is so popular I swear that half the student population emerges from lecture halls and residences’s at 5pm every day!

  12. Rolandt February 20, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

    Ek is n student op die puk, die probleem is dat die univ. se klub onaktief is, daar is nie tydtoetse of enige ander form van aktiwiteit nie, dus is daar baie studente wat eerder by die dorp se klubs aansluit omdat daar ten minste iets is waaraan n mens kan deelneem. Daar is n magdom studente wat hardloop, van 05:30 is die paaie rondom kampus gevul met aktiewe jonge studente.

    • wietse August 24, 2014 at 3:37 pm #

      Hi Rolandt ek kan dit beaam. Ek is ‘n oud Puk en het my eerste 2 Comrades onder hulle naam gehardloop, maar het in my finale jaar aangesluit by McArthur. My dogters is nou op Maties, klubgelde is uitermatig hoog en die studente sluit liewers by Stellenbosch Atletiekklub aan. Hulle het beide die jaar nog die Comrades met trots in Martie klere gehardloop, maar van die uiniversiteit was daar geen erkenning of ondersteuning nie. Gedurende die wedloop het hulle ongekende ondersteuning van ander oudstudente gekry en soms het dit vir my gevoel of die toeskouers net hulle raaksien. Maties sit met ‘n potensiale 10 000 atlete maar met hulle buitensporige klubgelde het hulle nie eens 100 nie.

  13. Christopher February 20, 2012 at 4:14 pm #

    Kids of today are raised differently, most kids feel like they are worth nothing and drugs cant be to blame, it’s been there for ages…

    If you talk to any youngster and say “hey lets go run 1km” I can guarantee you they’ll say “I cant do it” or “I’ll rather sit in front of the TV”.

    The lifestyle of today is to blame….people never change, but your surroundings determine who you will become. Clubbing all night has become a lifestyle, thankfully I never fell for it and still strive to live a healthy lifestyle….

    That’s my 2cents

  14. Road Sage March 9, 2012 at 3:21 am #

    Sorry Bruce but Comrades has been a disaster for serious elite athletes in SA. University students should be racing track and cross country. Those who are not speed demons should be concentrating on using track & cross country to better their PB’s over 10km and the half marathon. I know many talented runners at University level who were swept up in “Comrades culture” to run the race at 21 or 22 and then limp away with a piece of bronze and years of injury which, if they are lucky enough, they recovered from to pursue another sport. Most never ran another step! As long as the SA public and major sponsors perceive that jog walking 89kn in 11 hours is somehow more of an achievement than running a sub 28 minute 10km or 2:06 marathon, then the peaks of SA international road running legends will remain with Thugwane, Sinque and Ramaala for many years to come.

  15. Christopher March 9, 2012 at 11:44 am #

    @Road Sage

    You are missing the point, Saying the Comrades is a disaster is a mockery to the spirit of the Comrades. You cannot blame an event when someone under trains, Comrades builds ones spirit, the Comrades doesn’t break you down, you break only yourself, due to not training properly, anyone can run the comrades and have a joyful day if they actual train properly…

    But then, some people are designed to run certain distances, age is not a factor, I was 10 years old when I ran my first 10km and ran it in 50mins…. my dad ran the comrades 3 times, I was 14 then, and I trained everyday with him, doing the same training as him with him…. so it really comes down to who you are and what your capabilities are.

    • Road Sage March 23, 2012 at 7:04 pm #

      Sorry Christopher – I think you are missing the point of what I am trying to get across. I have nothing against Comrades as a mass participation event. Bruce is lamenting the fact that University students are not taking part. In my books this is a good sign. I was at Wits from 1988 – 1993. We had some serious elites at the track club back then. Those who got caught up in Comrades mania are no longer runners. Those who stuck to track and short to middle distance, appreciating that a 30 minute 10km or sub 63 half marathon is far more of an accomplishment and more difficult to achieve than walk jogging 89km in 11 hours, achieved those goals with unbelievable hard work and dedication. They are only turning to Comrades now, in their mid thirties, and they are top silver and gold medal contenders!! Those who ran in their early 20′s were not under trained and if they did not end up injured from their build up they often finished in the silver but have long since dropped out. The point is that Comrades and ultra running at a young age kills speed and prevents you from achieving your true potential in the long term. See this: http://www.sportsscientists.com/2007/08/story-of-alistair-cragg-indictment-on.html

  16. Nothando April 24, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

    I’m a female University student (UCT) and i did my 1st Ultra two oceans marathon in April 2012 & i’m very proud of it

    • Kathleen December 1, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

      Well done!!! Keep up the good training!

  17. Botha August 31, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

    They are all in the gym. Check out the health clubs near universities.
    Students are training conscious, but in a more sosial form.

  18. Kathleen December 1, 2012 at 2:34 pm #


    I’m a varsity student myself, but go run alone. The running club with us, and many other ones at universities just do not cater for the novice runner and are so damn competitive! And they look down on you if you can’t do 21.1km regularly and only do the long races. Seriously, how many of us have been scared to go up to a club saying we’ve just started running 5km, can barely do 10km but would like to learn how to train and do a half or full marathon – only to be told to come back in a few months when our “trainging and pace” have improved. So if you want to get running with a club, I think the best bet is finding like-minded students and try advertize, or join your area’s running club. Or just encourage students who run to buy university sportsware with the university logo to show support during a race?

  19. John January 17, 2013 at 2:31 pm #

    I am one of the old Natal University runners – 1971 to 1977 and Bruce is right about the great spirit of rivalry with Dave Hodgkiss, Rob Steer, Daryl Maclean, Dave Wright and the like. In those days the fields were a fraction of what they are today and running shoes didn’t exist. Notwithstanding this, holding the running clubs together was incredibly hard work as running was infra-dig and only the really dedicated saw it through – The New York marathon at this stage was only just in its infancy with fields of only several hundred runners. The reality is running is hard work; motivating aspirant runners is hard work; administering the clubs and organising is hard work; so perhaps the missing component is individuals who are not afraid of hard-work. As a Grand-master I am still able to win the odd race today and it is encouraging to see the Brian Chamberlains, Dave Wrights and Trevor Parrys who are still out there running great times.

  20. Christine December 24, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

    I’ll be running Comrades 2014 in UCT colours as I have been accepted for Honours there next year.

    I stand to be corrected, but my impression of UCT Athletic is that, at the moment, most of their members are track athletes, so that’s their main focus and forte. I’d like to create interest and increase participation in distance and trail events next year when I join.

    @Pierre has a valid point in saying that a lot of races are expensive, so this limits the number of races we can compete in. I chose not to enter the 2Oceans trail again in 2014 because it’s just too damn expensive. I can run a 22k trail on my uys for free you know.

  21. Ashleigh March 7, 2014 at 12:05 pm #

    This is my big question too!? I am a masters student at UKZN doing a study on all female endurnace runners in KZN, can wont you believe it, but I can’t find any!!!!!

  22. Ashleigh March 7, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

    This is my question too!? I am a masters student at UKZN and I am conducting a study on KZN endurance runners, but wouldn’t you know, I can’t find any!!!!

  23. Michael March 7, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

    I have been an avid runner since I was sixteen and really got into track in my matric year as well as cross country.Coming to Stellenbosch( an absolute athlete hub) I wanted to join the athletics club butto pay R1550 for a year with no coaching no clothing just the use of the track it pains me to say that it feels like the varsity Athletics doesnt want people to join in and keep running.

  24. Louise August 22, 2014 at 4:32 pm #

    Both me and my sister completed our first Comrades this year in Maties colours. It’s sad to admit that we were two of three students in the Maties team (total of 11 people – most of them academics, only 9 started the race). I think it’s because the athletics club is too expensive. At R340 membership per year, excluding licence fees and club clothes, it’s one of the most expensive clubs in and around Cape Town. There’s a very good reason why Stellenbosch AC is bursting out of its seams. Plus, except for the high club fees, there’s no social feel to at all. Where’s the gazebo at the end of big races, or even just a pasta party for the very few who actually runs the bigger rraces like Two Oceans and Comrades. Management does not really care about anyone who isn’t doing track. Which is ironic seeing that none of the universities really have an outstanding track team anymore.

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