Great accomplishments can be achieved in seven weeks or less. Examples include the construction of the main structure of the Empire State Building, the complete filming schedule of ‘Gone with the Wind’ (one of the most iconic films of all time) and the entire recording and production of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ (the best-selling album of all time).
Likewise many great books are written in a short period of time like Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ (3 weeks), Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ (6 weeks – to meet the publishing deadline for the Christmas rush), John Boyne’s ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ (first draft written in 2.5 days) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (3 days). Even Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-fuelled gonzo journalism classic ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ was written over a short period (although the author is not sure of the exact time frame).
Seven weeks after Comrades 2023, the below press release was finally published. It is unlikely to be named in any future classic compositions lists although it is up there with the last season of Game of Thrones in terms of disappointing let-downs – one or two good moments but the audience was expecting a lot more after waiting all that time. The only thing slower than the wheels of justice in South Africa is the pedestrian pace with which the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) operates.
However, there are some big positives so let’s start by looking at those…
- There is finally an acknowledgement that runners’ concerns were valid (and not just the opinions of “ill-informed and clueless loudmouths on social media”).
- There is a formal apology about the diabolical cut-offs that robbed several hundred runners of a medal and ruined the last few minutes of Comrades as a spectacle.
- There is an apology for the incorrect cutoff times being displayed on the official Comrades app.
- There is a promise that “various professionals” will be called on to help with better finish venue infrastructure and logical, fair cutoff times in future.
On the negative (or “what’s missing”) side…
- There is no mention of the safety issues at the start (which could easily have resulted in runners being crushed in a stampede).
- The dangerous and illogical route change into Epworth Road at 3.5km gets one line that “alternative routes out of Pietermaritzburg will be investigated”. It ignores that two highly experienced technical delegates resigned because their safety concerns were ignored by the Race Director (as were concerns raised by others). The fact that Comrades staff knowingly and willingly put the lives of 16,000 Comrades runners at risk is gross negligence with potential serious legal implications.
- While start line safety is not mentioned at all, the “Start Sound” gets headline focus (including what appears to be justifications for the proficiency of the unnamed service provider). There is no mention as to what caused the problem – which begs the question whether someone is being protected and questions the overall transparency of the communication.
- The absence of an apology from Rowyn James for his ‘joggers’ insult and other arrogant, condescending remarks.
- Failure to provide reasons or root causes for any of the issues that occurred.
- Failure to provide a concrete plan of action (e.g. free entry in 2024) for the runners impacted by the illogical cutoffs.
- Other than the promise to consult “various professionals” in future, there are no concrete actions in place to address 2023’s problems (this would be fine if the press release came out a few days after the event but one would expect the CMA to already have a working action plan after seven weeks).
- Issues which are completely ignored (or get a cursory ‘etc.’ mention) include the incorrect t-shirt sizes, running out of medals, bailer buses on the route interfering with runners, lack of female runner facilities, cutoff guns fired too early, heavy handed cutoff officials, unawareness of race day issues by CMA staff and officials, perpetual half-truths and outright lying from the communications team and communication breakdown where runners contacting the CMA are ignored or given callous, canned responses.
The best summary of this discouraging press release comes from a former winner and well-placed source close to the Comrades Board who called it the “Ultimate Cop Out” and went on to say, “I despair if this is the damp squib of a non-response after seven weeks.”
The internet has been equally brutal in its assessment of the press release. I have included some of the responses as an appendix but the general feeling of the running community can be assessed by looking at the comments on these Facebook groups:
It appears that the CMA is badly out of touch with reality and still has a long way to go to earn back the trust of its customers.
However, the fact that there is an apology is a major victory and credit must go to Board Chairman Mqondisi Ngcobo for driving this through. However the time taken to get the press release published is another concern.
I have been in regular contact with Ngcobo and was told to except a press release on Friday 14 July (two days after the race debriefings were concluded). This date was subsequently moved to the following Friday (21 July) and then to Wednesday 26 July “at the latest”. The communication finally went out late on Friday night (28 July).
That a 413-word press release takes over two weeks to be published indicates that there is major division within the CMA. I asked Ngcobo if this was the case but he preferred to “show solidarity with the collective” and refused to confirm or deny discord within the Board.
However, a well-placed source was willing to comment saying, “The Comrades Board is full of people who know nothing at all about running and don’t want him [Ngcobo] there. They are hoping he fails as they have their eyes on the Chairman’s position.”
As for the dynamics and current situation within the Board, “It is a toxic and divided Board on which everyone is jostling to retain their position and not one of them is willing to stand up.”
Ngcobo is one of four current Board members* who ran Comrades this year (he has five finishes and completed the 2023 event in 9:52:44). I have spoken to a number of people who have vouched for Ngcobo (including his predecessor and mentor Cheryl Winn) and he seems ideally placed to lead Comrades out of their current quagmire if he was receives the support of a competent Board.
* The other three Board members are Pumlani Ntuli (7:24:56 – 6th finish),Steve Mkasi (10:19:31 – 10th finish and Isaac Ngwenya (11:18:55 – 21st finish).
Board members are usually voted in at the AGM in October although there are rumours circulating that a special AGM will be called (which requires the signatures of 25 members). There has been an influx of CMA membership applications following the various post-race debacles so the AGM is likely to be an interesting affair.
It remains to be seen whether this press release is the start of a Comrades renaissance or whether the Board feels that they have now done enough to effectively resolve the plethora of issues experienced at the 2023 event.
According to Ngcobo, the outcome of the race debriefings (held a month after the event from 10 – 12 July) produced a 16 page document. As a recently sign-up member of the CMA, I asked whether it was possible to get a copy of this document but was told it’s, “An internal document and won’t be available wider.” Likewise the minutes from a recent “closed Board meeting” are not available to regular members. However, I suspect they might be of interest should a paid journalist be willing to go through the trouble of raising a PAIA request.
As to whether Race Director had received any censure for his baffling race day decisions, negligence to runner safety and conceited public responses, Ngcobo confirmed that he and Vice Chairman Les Burnard gave James a stern talking to. However, whether any formal steps or censure have occurred appears to be top secret with the Chairman saying that staff matters are, “An internal process that I am not in a position to divulge.”
Appendix: Runner Response to the Press Release
Below is a list of comments from the two Facebook groups listed in the article that shared the press release. I was able to find one positive comment and have included this at the end but have chosen to blur out the name so as to avoid the risk of trolling.
Here’s the lone positive comment.Follow Running Mann: