The World descends on Stellenbosch for the World Cross Country Champs
23 March 1996 is a day forever etched in my mind. The world descended on Stellenbosch as the little Matie town played host to the 24th edition of the World Cross Country Championships. The greatest middle-distance athletes of that era including the defending Champion Paul Tergat; Haile Gebrselassie, already a two-time world 10 000m champion; Derartu Tulu, the 1992 Olympic 10 000m champion, a world championships 10 000m silver medallist and the defending champion at these World Championships all congregated in the Cape with the South African assault to be spearheaded by Gwen Griffiths (van Lingen), Colleen de Reuck, Owen Machelm and Shadrack Hoff.
World Athletics Dilemma
The 1996 World Cross Country Championships almost did not happen. The the IAAF (now World Athletics) had lost some major sponsors and had not been able to replace those come the World Cross Country Championships. At the last minute Old Mutual stepped in – and they got the sponsorship at a song. WA was desperate. That also meant that the championships would not be televised live, and with no social media in those days, that had an impact. Instead, a one-hour highlights package was put together for viewing at a later stage. Here is the link the too that package.
Clever Marketing – or ambush marketing
When it comes to the hosting of a world championships, the rules governing what and where non-sponsors can display their branding are pretty strong. Anything within the competition arena is off limits for non-sponsors and depending on the calibre of the event, the ‘competition arena’ also extends to cover a certain radius around the competition venue. At the time Adidas still was a sponsor of WA and so they had bragging rights in the use of the name of the event. Nike did not. They were however very clever in how they used their famous swoosh logo. Posters looking like this were spotted all over Cape Town:
Clever Marketing indeed.
South African Excitement
When the news broke that Stellenbosch would host the World Cross Country Championships, excitement was rife. South Africa had just been readmitted into the global sports arena after isolation, had hosted the 1995 World Rugby Championships and was now hosting the World Cross Country Championships a year later. In order to prepare, the South African Cross-Country Championships were held in Stellenbosch in August of 1995 as a sort of dress rehearsal. This was to be an even bigger occasion than normal as it would be used to select the team for the World Championships – and everyone wanted to be there, even more so as the event was being held on home soil. So, competition was fierce. In the end the team named was as follows:
Senior Men: Shadrack Hoff, John Morapedi, Meshack Mogotsi, Owen Machelm, Meck Mothuli, Makhosonke Fika, Simon Morolong, Ezael Thlobo and Samuel Molokomme.
Senior Women: Colleen de Reuck, Gwen Griffiths (Van Lingen), Carlien Cornelisson, Zola Budd, Paulina Phaho and Charne Rademeyer (Bosman).
Junior Men: Richard Mavuso, Aaron Gabonewe, Richard Mncabe, Lazarus Ramasia, Andries Moss and Ephraim Mokuthu.
Junior Women: Georgina Fourie, Rene Kalmer, Louisa Leballo, Stephanie van Graan and Lizette Grobler.
The men’s race was over 12km with each team allowed a maximum of nine entrants where the top six positions would count toward the team prize. The Women ran 6km in teams of six with four to count; the Junior Men ran 8km also with six members and four to count, while the Junior Women raced 4km, again with a team of six and four to count.
With Old Mutual as title sponsor, naturally the media and marketing department of the Insurance giant was abuzz. The ideas flowed. “Ah Madiba will be there, we can use him for……,” we can put banners here….. and here….” and so on and so forth. I was privileged to be part of these discussions as Old Mutual were my employer’s client. I worked for The Competitive Link which later became Octagon Marketing and Old Mutual were our client on all thing’s athletics. Remember that Old Mutual were sponsors of the SA Junior and Senior Track and Field Championships, the SA Junior and Senior Cross-Country Championships and the SA 10Km, Half Marathon and Marathon Championships. It was quite difficult at times to reign in the understandable excitement and explain what rights had actually been bought – the clearly defined world of sports sponsorship as it exits today was still very much a new environment in South Africa and at that time where sponsors pretty much called the shots.
There was huge excitement in Stellenbosch on 23 March, 1996. A roughly 2km course had been laid out that would go through the Danie Craven Stadium, then out onto the lower slopes of the foothills just adjacent to the stadium, down to the lower hockey fields and back through the stadium again. The route out of the stadium was a steep embankment that was man made. Soil and grass had been laid on a ramp that went up the spectator seats on the bottom right-hand corner of the stadium, with a steep descent down the other side. I will never forget the sound of the feet pounding up that ramp. It was like thunder! Just before the ramp was a big log thrown across the lane to act as an obstacle.
The Junior races were held prior to the Seniors with the best individual performance run by Richard Mavuso who finished 26th, leading Team SA to overall 5th in the team competition. The Junior Women also acquitted themselves well with a 7th position in the team prize.
Enter the Senior Ladies race. All eyes on were on Derartu Tulu and to a lesser extent on Gete Wami as well as Kenyans, Rose Cheruiyot, Naomi Mugo and Jane Ngotho. Early on in the race, with Wami setting the pace (this was within the first 5min), Tulu was boxed in by the Kenyans and as she tried to get out of that box, her heal was clipped and she lost her shoe. She ran back to put it on again, but her race was effectively over. Still she probably had the fastest race overall as she came flying through the field to finish just outside the medals in fourth place.
Three times the women would go through the stadium, and all three laps the blond hair of Colleen de Reuck was distinctly visible. The gutsy South African was out-sprinted from the podium positions in the final 60m of the race, finishing an incredible 5th overall – nine seconds adrift of the winner (Gete Wami with Cheruiyot in second) and given the same time as third placed Naomi Mugo and the fast-finishing Derartu Tulu. What a race! Colleen led Team South Africa to 5th in the team competition.
Then it was time for the men. The course was designed in such a way as to be very spectator friendly and the cross-country coaches probably ran three times the distance of their proteges, running from one point of the track to another to shout support and advice. A popular spectator point was at the top of the embankment as the athletes left the stadium. From there you could see a fair bit down lower slopes of the Stellenbosch foothills as the athletes ran towards the athletics track side of the course and then came back to run on the lower fields of the sports grounds and back into the stadium. The roar every time the athletes went past was deafening, especially in the early stages, as home favourite Shadrack Hoff was taking the fight to the Kenyans and Ethiopians. The tiny Hoff was mixing it with the big guns and only in the second half of the race did he start falling back as the relentless pace wore on. His coach and other coaches could not contain themselves in those early stages. “Hy kan dit doen”, “Ja, hy kan” (He can do it. Yes he can).
But Shadrack was up against the imperious Paul Tergat. Tall, easy striding and smooth. And one Haile Gebrselassie. The Kenyans had a plan. In the early stages, Ismail Kirui, Paul Koech and Joseph Kimani, along with the other Kenyans would shelter Tergat and drive the pace. The wiley Salah Hissou just sat in the pack, while Geb (Haile Gebrselassie) watched everything like a hawk. The constant fartlek of the Kenyan contingent started to drop the field until on the final lap as they entered the stadium, it was the Kenyan trio who led, Hissou sitting behind them, Geb behind him and Tergat right at the back. As they approached the log, the man-made obstacle for the final time, Geb tripped – and Tergat went. There was never any doubt that anyone would catch him after that. He simply glided away with every step on that final 2km loop to come home for his the second of his five World Cross Country Titles. It was also a very rare win for the Kenyan over Geb who would come in 5th. Only Salah Hissou was able to prevent a Kenyan 1-2-3, as the Moroccan finished second ahead of Kirui. Hoff never gave up fighting and came across the line in 15th to lead Team SA to 7th overall in the team title.
It was an incredible day of racing, one that anyone who was there, would never forget. It was a privilege indeed to have been part of this. A special thank you to Allan Parrot for the truly magnificent photos of that great day.
Manfred Seidler has been in the media industry in athletics since 1994 having managed the media around a number of SA Track and Field Championships, SA Cross Country Championships and Road Championships. He also was the media account director on the hugely successful Engen Grand Prix Summer Series from 1995 to 1997 before being head hunted by the Television company Octagon CSI. Manfred founded the athletics TV Show Athletics Alive (later to become Engen Gijima) until the sponsor withdrew from the sport in 2003. During that time Manfred had the privilege of traveling the world and meeting and interviewing some of the best athletes in the world while he chased South Africa’s finest around the globe. Manfred resurrected Athletics Alive in 2011 on behalf of SABC and produced the show until 2016. He has covered three Olympic Games (2008/12/16 - was in London for 2012), the Commonwealth Games (2006/10/14/18) and was able to attend three World Championships. Manfred is now an accomplished Media Consultant with Athletics his biggest focus - and still his biggest passion.