ATHLETICS: Julian Drew
DESPITE all the criticism which has been levelled at Okkert Brits for failing to deliver when it really counts, he still remains South Africa’s best chance for a gold medal at the world athletics champ- ionships which begin in Athens next week. And with the legendary Czar of the Vault Sergei Bubka looking more vulnerable than ever, that task may be a little easier than it has been in the past for Brits.
Not that anything is ever easy in what is probably the most unpredictable event on the track and field programme, something the South African media seem unwilling to acknowledge. Indeed with the exception of Bubka, whose feats defy explanation, there is seldom any consistency among the winners in the pole vault. It’s a case of one week you are up and the next you are down.
But Brits has now learnt to cope with the down side of being South Africa’s top athlete. “The problem was that I always tried to please everybody else instead of doing it for myself. Now I’ve learnt how to deal with my coach if he’s not happy, my family, the media or the public. I used to think `Well what are they going to think?’ But the only person you really disappoint in the end is yourself.
“When you are young it’s great to get in the papers and get all this attention but then suddenly you do badly and boom, everything changes. I couldn’t understand that at first and that type of thing can make or break an athlete, but now I’ve learnt to laugh it off. It’s all part of the job and if you can’t take the heat then you must get out of the sport,” says Brits.
Nowadays you get the feeling that Brits is a man at peace with himself, despite not having won any major titles. “It’s important that the environment I work in, the coach I have, the goals I have, everything I do is what I want and what makes me feel comfortable.
“The most important thing for me is to enjoy life and have fun. I’ve learnt so much about life from pole vaulting because of my international exposure and I’ve seen and done so many things that a kid from Bloemfontein wouldn’t normally experience. It’s something no amount of money could buy.”
But such experiences do come at a price. When Brits does his real preparations in what is termed his winter programme during the months from October through to March, not even the skills of police torturer Jeffrey Benzien could match the pain Brits goes through. “That’s the time I feel like a vegetable,” he says of the days that are filled with three-hour workouts in the mornings and afternoons that leave him so tired that when he gets home all he can do is flop in front of the television and invariably fall asleep.
Not even Saturdays provide any respite. “The worst thing about Saturdays is that you know you have to get up at seven and go to the Danie Craven Stadium (in Stellenbosch) and run up and down the stairs and you know that by the time you finish you are going to throw up.”
Only Sundays are free and for relaxation he goes to the beach with his surf board. “I go surfing just to take my mind off the pole vault. I’m quite good but not like these guys who’ve been doing it since they were 12. I’m not a total ripper but I can get on every wave and surf it.”
In Athens Brits will not go into the major event of the year with the highest vault of the season under his belt and that may take some of the pressure off him. In 1995 he jumped 6.00m just before the world championships and last year he cleared 6.03m early in the season. This year he has cleared 5.90m twice and is not even South Africa’s top vaulter. Riaan Botha claims that honour with his 5.91m leap in Pretoria in April.
Indeed there is no clear favourite in Athens with Bubka not even certain to start the competition after the problems he has had recovering from the injury which forced him out of the Olympics last year.
Maksim Tarasov of Russia looks to be the man to beat after his 6.00m victory at the final Grand Prix meeting before the championships in Nice last week. But as Brits says, “Anyone who makes the final has a chance of winning. It doesn’t matter if you are Sergei Bubka or Mr Nobody. If you make the final 12 you are in with a chance.”