• Charles Baloyi

Kelehe blasts Nedbank for letting Gongqa go and calls for the formation of an athletes' union

Former Comrades Marathon champion Gift Kelehe is calling for the formation of the athletes' union so that it can stand up for the rights of defenceless athletes. He said athletes are exploited and often do not have the means to defend themselves. Kelehe who is not the one to shy away from voicing his opinion, blasted the Nedbank Running Club for how it failed to renew the contract of their former top runner Lungile Gongqa in December.


Kelehe (centre) flanked by fellow Comrades Marathon champions Edward Mothibi (left) and David Gatebe (right). Photo Credit: Edward Mothibi.

Last week #TheTopRunner reported about the Olympian's struggle to survive after his contract expired. Kelehe did not hold back on his criticism of the Dream Team as he tore into them for their lack of sympathy for and understanding of the struggles of black athletes. Kelehe pulled out the race card and questioned if what happened to Gongqa would have happened to a white athlete? He admonished the club's manager Nick Bester, accusing him of not taking care of athletes properly.


“I know that I talk too much and I am not scared to say what's on my mind. Someone has to say it and call a spade a spade. I feel sad about what happened to Lungile. They spat him out like bubble gum. What they did to him is inhuman. What Bester did to him is wrong. He would have been treated differently if he were a white athlete. They would never do that to a white athlete," Kelehe told The Top Runner.


Kelehe believes it's high time SA Athletics introduces a union to stand up for the rights of athletes. Photo Credit: Gift Kelehe.

However, Bester said what happened to Lungile was not personal nor was it racially motivated. The 1991 Comrades Marathon champion defended his actions pointing to budget cuts as the reason why some of their runners were let go, explaining that the lack of races caused by the global pandemic is ultimately to blame for the situation. “It is not personal. We got rid of many athletes and we were in a tight corner. We have financial restraints," said Bester in response to Kelehe's accusations. He also sympathized with the 2017 Two Oceans Marathon champion's plight saying that he would be among the first athletes to be recalled to the club if life returns to normal.


It is for this reason that Kelehe is advocating for the formation of a new body to protect the rights of athletes. The outspoken athlete said the new Athletics South Africa board that would come into office after the May 8 elections, must prioritize the idea of starting a union to prevent similar unfortunate stories from happening again. “We need an athletics union to defend us from these people who want to benefit from our success and spit us out when we are not winning. Imagine waking up one day to find that a former Comrades or Two Oceans Marathon winner has no money to bury him. The worst part about Lungile is that he did not go to school. How is he going to survive? That is where the union comes in, but we do not have one in athletics. If Lungile dies tomorrow there would not be money to bury him as he is already starving of hunger," said the furious Kelehe.

Kelehe winning the 2015 Comrades Marathon. Photo Credit: CMA.

Kelehe who is a former policeman and works as a physical training facilitator at the Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC), is warning athletes to find alternative sources of income and not depend on running alone. "That is why my advice to all athletes is not to depend on running only. They must find jobs and work so that they can put food on the table," said Kelehe, who was spitting fire. He singled out four-time Olympian turned coach Hendrick Ramaala, who is a qualified attorney as an example of athletes that prepare for life after leaving the sport.


“It is difficult to work and run on a full-time basis, but it has to be done for your sake. Look at Ramaala for example, he went to school and is well off. However, I am coping and it is helping me to put food on the table. We must establish a union to guard against those who get exposure from runners but spit them out at the first sight of the struggle. The union will help to bury us, cover our medical costs, and provide the support that we need. We must be affiliated to a union and everything will work out okay for us," pleaded Kelehe.


The best of the best! Comrades winners David Gatebe (far left), Ludwick Mamabolo (centre), Kelehe and Bongumusa Mthembu (far right) pose with Comrades gold medalist Rufus Photo before jetting off to represent SA at the 2016 100km championships in Spain. Photo Credit: Rufus Photo.

Kelehe also warned the incoming ASA board not to abuse their powers in office and serve the athletes. “We need a new board with fresh ideas, not the old guard who failed dismally. We need leaders that will serve the athletes and not their pockets. We have talented ultra-runners in South African and we can easily dominate the world. However, politics and corrupt administrators are holding us back. This problem will go on from generation to generation if we do not curb it out. It's time for new leadership in the ASA elections, we are sick and tired of leaders that are not doing anything to protect the athletes," added Kelehe.

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