Wes Botton talks us through Team SA’s Rio 2016 chances
13 June 2016
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Brad Brown: You’re listening to Old Mutual Live and as we head towards the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, we’re going to be chatting more and more in the build-up to it. About our chances and who we should be keeping our eyes on. A man who has kept his finger on the pulse of South African athletics for many years now. He is the man in the know, he’s a sports journo for the Citizen newspaper, based up in Johannesburg, Wesley Botton, Wesley, welcome, nice to touch base.
Wesley Botton: Yeah, nice to be on, thanks for having me Brad.
BB: Wes, what I love about you, first of all, before we start chatting athletics, is you don’t just love the sport, you’re a runner yourself. So you don’t just walk the talk, you run the talk, so to speak.
WB: I should probably put more effort into it. But I do put some running shoes on now and again, yes.
BB: And you’re not half bad. If memory serves me correctly, you’ve got a couple of Comrades Silver Medals under your belt?
WB: No, I’ve just missed out a few times!
BB: You just missed?
WB: Yeah, but it’s my own fault Brad, it’s such a difficult race. If you don’t put the effort in, you’re not going to reap the rewards. So maybe if I trained a little bit harder, I might be able to get that elusive Silver at some point.
BB: Training makes a bit difference, doesn’t it Wes?
WB: It does! Unfortunately!
The Highs and Lows of South African athletics
BB: Let’s talk about the state of South African athletics, particularly building up towards Rio 2016. It’s been a frustrating build-up, in parts. There have been some amazing performances and there have been some pretty disappointing ones?
WB: Yeah, absolutely. I think we’ve seen a lot of positive things coming out the sport, certainly from an athlete’s perspective, in the last few years. The depth has improved. It’s been great to see the sprinters coming through. We’ve got a group of young speedsters who are doing very well. tThey should only get better over the next few years.
But in other disciplines, maybe lacking a bit. We haven’t got the depth at the moment in distance running, although we do have a few stars. Haven’t got that depth in the field events. Again, there’s a couple of athletes who are fantastic, they’re able to compete at the highest level, but then we’ve got a big gap before everybody else. Lots of positives, but a few negatives as well, I think.
BB: Wes, let’s talk about that group of sprinters. I don’t want to say they’ve come out of nowhere, but again, success breeds success. As soon as you’re running consistently against good people, you do tend to get better. Things are looking really up for South African sprinting. We’ve won a medal for the 4x100m relay at the World Champs many years ago. We’re starting to show signs again that we could be challenging for those sorts of titles; 100, 200 and 400, we’ve got some brilliant runners.
A flood of South African sprinting talent
WB: Yeah, it almost happened overnight. I think it all started with Simon Magakwe. He dipped under 10 seconds in Pretoria a couple of years back. It sort of triggered something. Magakwe is out the picture at the moment, but there’s been a whole host of guys who have come through. The promising thing is that it hasn’t stopped.
That progression of having another generation following another generation and building on, has already started. We’ve seen this group of guys who are now approaching their mid-20’s. Guys like Wayde van Niekerk, Akani Simbine, Henricho Bruintjies.
Now there’s another group of guys that are coming through who are all in their late teens. Clarence Munyai is probably the best of the lot, Gift Leotlela, Kyle Apple. So like I said, it’s not just that we’ve got guys who are now able to compete at the highest level. We’ve got guys who are capable now of reaching Olympic finals.
Wayde van Niekerk is obviously capable of winning Gold. He might even set the world record at some point. But I think it’s also fantastic that it hasn’t stopped. That you’ve got that next generation that’s following immediately. Hopefully in the next 4-5 years we see another group of guys coming through as well.
BB: How much of it is a belief thing? The reason I ask that, if you look at the four-minute mile, as an example. When Roger Bannister first broke it, everyone said it was impossible. All of a sudden he did it and then more and more people did it and now it’s quite common.
You look at South African athletics, particularly from a sprinting side. You mentioned the dipping under 10 seconds as the huge trigger that brought this. How much of it is that these youngsters go, well, if he can do it, I can do it?
WB: Yeah, that’s it, I think a lot of it is mental. Even though people from other countries have done it and there’s obviously a lot of American’s and Jamaicans and Brits who have gone under the mark. But because we’ve never had a South African, I think it creates that mental block. The guys maybe aren’t as confident as they would be; knowing that somebody from the same place as them, with the same opportunities as them, has managed to achieve that goal.
So they know that it’s possible. Since Magakwe has gone under 10; we’ve seen Simbine go under 10, Bruintjies has done it. van Niekerk, a 400m runner has done it. All these other youngsters that are coming through. The next group of guys are almost certainly going to do it as well.
Hopefully someone like Simbine can take it a step further. You’ve got all these barriers along the way, so at the moment everyone is looking at sub 10. I’m sure that Simbine is already looking beyond that and he’s probably looking to go under nine-nine. If he can do that, then again, it shows the other guys that they’re capable of achieving the same thing.
Caster Semenya is in blinding form
BB: Let’s talk middle distance. Caster Semenya is showing signs that she’s getting back to her best. She’s a phenomenal talent and it’s good to see her running and running well again.
WB: Yeah, fantastic man and just the kind of versatility that she showed this season. Not only is she coming through and showing glimpses of the athlete that we saw five years ago. But she’s now got options as well. We were watching her at the SA Championships in the 400m and she looked awesome. She looked like she was coasting down the home straight and ran a 51.
Then you see her in the 1 500 and she looks just as strong. So, I don’t know which way she’s going to go. I hope that she focuses on the 800. I hope she’s not taking on too much. Every championship now she seems to be running everything, including relays.
She must maybe take her foot off the pedal a bit and decide which direction she wants to go in. I hope that she doesn’t double in Rio. I don’t think it’s a good idea. I think she should focus on the 800. If she does that, it’s the perfect event for her.
It’s difficult to say at this point of the season. But the progress that we’ve seen from her in the last couple of months; you’ve got to expect that by the time August gets here, she’s going to be in similar shape that she was when she won the World Title in 2009. Back when she ran a 1:55 and if anything, at the moment, it looks like she’s going to go quicker than that. Really good to see her coming back.
BB: And it’s all about peaking at the right time. You can’t win everything all the time. I think they’re doing some great work and ja, I’m excited Wes. I’m sure you are as well. Let’s talk about the longer things, the marathons. I’m disappointed the way South African marathon running is going. There’s obviously lots of reasons behind it, but on the ladies’ side of things, there’s lots of competition. But the men’s side really haven’t lived up to expectation?
Hard to compete again East Africans in the marathon
WB: No, it has been disappointing. You know, the East African guys just keep getting quicker and quicker and quicker and it’s not just us. The rest of the world can’t seem to keep up. But countries I think are, at least improving themselves. Even if they’re not able to keep up with these phenomenal athletes of Kenya and Ethiopia.
There is improvement and we haven’t seen that, we haven’t seen improvement in our marathon running in a long time. Like you say, the ladies, having that depth for the first time in decades is awesome. But something needs to be done on the men’s side. I don’t know where it’s going wrong, I don’t know where that shortfall is coming from.
But you’ve got Lusapho April who has been consistent over the last few years. He’s had a few poor runs on difficult courses, maybe difficult conditions where he struggled a bit. But he has shown that he’s got the potential. He’s won the Hanover Marathon three times, so you can’t really fault him.
I think Stephen Mokoka needs to make a decision as to what he wants to focus on. I don’t like the fact that he keeps going back to the track. Then he’ll pop up in a marathon. Then he’s running a half marathon. Then back down to the 5 000. I don’t think it’s conducive for a professional athlete to try and juggle so many different distances. If he focused on the marathon, I think we’ve got a 2:05 runner there. But he doesn’t seem keen at this point.
Then after those two guys, there’s a massive gap. We’ve seen a couple of guys running 2:11, 2:12, but 20 years ago, those would have been decent performances. When you’ve got Kenyan guys running 2:02 and our third best marathon runner is running a 2:11, it’s just not good. It shows that we’re not only not keeping up with the best in the world. But we’re not even keeping up with our own performances. We’re certainly not seeing any improvement.
If you look back into the late 90’s, sort of turn of the century, at some of the guys that we had then. Gert Thys was already running 2:06 and was running 2:07, 2:08 consistently. He was the first guy in the world to do it twice in a year, to go under 2:08.
Now we’ve got almost nobody that is capable of doing that. So, I don’t know if it’s coaching mind-set. I don’t know, maybe the guys just don’t have the mental strength. I don’t know, maybe they’re racing too much. But something needs to be done though.
BB: And Wes, you talk those times and you think to yourself, it’s not that much of a time difference. From a 2:02 to 2:11. But nine minutes, when you’re running at that pace, that’s 3km.
WB: Oh yeah, absolutely, that’s a massive difference. Even if you’re comparing someone like Lungile Gongqa, a 2:11 runner to Stephen Mokoka who has run a 2:07, that four-minute gap is massive. Like you say, it’s more than a kilometre that he’s opened on the other guy. It takes a lot of work to chop that sort of time. You can’t expect it to happen overnight.
You can’t expect someone like Gongqa to suddenly run a 2:07. It has to be done in training and he’s got to have the right approach. He’s got to make sure that he’s resting. He’s actually a very good example because he’s run, Lungile Gongqa I think has run four competitive marathons in the last seven or eight months, which is unheard of for international marathon runners. You won’t see a top East African guy racing that much. If he’s good, he wouldn’t be performing at the highest level, it’s too much.
I know what his issue is, I know he’s said that he’s got financial issues. he’s got people to feed. But then you’re looking at it the wrong way. By racing every second marathon that’s run in South Africa, you’re getting a little bit of prize money, you can feed the family. But there’s no long term goal. If the guys were just a little more patient, performed reasonably well here, went overseas, did their best there. Raced only two marathons a year, Gongqa could be a far better athlete.
Unfortunately, maybe poor management, I don’t think he’s been managed very well. Maybe getting poor advice from people, but a very short term mind-set. Which affects his whole career and it’s blown now. There’s no way an athlete like that, after racing as much as he has, can ever become world class, he’s blown it.
It’s unfortunate, but maybe that’s the issue. Maybe the issue is that we haven’t got enough people guiding these guys and teaching them. Showing them what to do and probably just disappointing, I think, that he’s actually being, not coached, but managed in a way by Hendrik Ramaala, who should know better.
BB: Interesting. Wesley Botton, thank you so much for joining us here on Old Mutual Live, much appreciated, loved chatting athletics with you and we’ll definitely be doing it more, I’m sure. Thanks for your time today.
WB: Awesome, good being on, thanks Brad.