Graeme Pope-Ellis: Our greatest — ever

The BBC has those great series from time to time where viewers are asked to judge the greatest Briton or some such. A protagonist makes the case why their subject should get the vote.

If there was ever such a contest in South Africa to crown the country’s greatest sporting figure, I would make the case for Dusi legend Graeme Pope-Ellis.

But first we have to agree on terms. I do not think you have to have had a long career in sport to qualify for this title. Your achievement may have taken no longer than running a beautiful 10 seconds, scoring a World Cup match-winning goal or nailing a single Olympic gold medal, as did Josiah Tugwana.

Equally, your achievement may span decades – as in the case of Wally Hayward, who won the Comrades four times and then came back in his 80s to finish the event once again.

I am not even sure you need to have been a sportsman to earn this accolade. Arguably, a brilliant sports administrator – someone who, say, established a sport even though he or she never actively participated – could also be in contention.

But let me tell you why Pope-Ellis would be my choice, notwithstanding the awe I have for athletes such as Bruce Fordyce and Wally Hayward.

Pope-Ellis last year completed his 45th consecutive Dusi. He came in 58th overall.

He is now 62, having made the journey every year between Pietermaritzburg and Durban since he was 17.

He was the first grandmaster (60+) home, but beat the master (50+) paddlers too and would have been placed fourth in the veteran (40+) category. Pope-Ellis competes with canoeists 20 years his junior.

In 2008 he was 25th in a K2 (two-person canoe), demolishing participants in many younger-age categories. He won the Dusi 15 times between 1972 and 1990, three times in a K1 (single canoe) and 12 times in a K2 – three with Eric Clarke, five with Peter Peacock and four with Tim Cornish.

He was the fastest to Durban when the river was low, against fearsome runners such as Danny Biggs, and when the river was high, he beat paddlers of legendary ability.

Worth noting, perhaps, is the obvious point that canoeing is not like sedentary sports such as golf. You can have a very long career as a golfer because the caddy or cart carries your clubs. In canoeing, you do the propulsion and, in the case of the Dusi with its arduous portages, the carrying too.

Next on the leader board in terms of number of wins is Martin Dreyer with seven. Dreyer did not paddle last year, having set himself the goal of getting 10 paddlers from the Robert Lembethe Canoe Club into the top 50 finishers. These paddlers, who live in the Umgeni Valley, have the natural talent but are in need of coaching and equipment.

Dreyer was able to get two golds (top 10), seven in the top 20 and 11 athletes in all in the top 50.

Dreyer says Pope-Ellis is a living legend, a special breed of athlete. “He made me the Dusi paddler I am,” he says.

Dreyer was showing form that would put him in the top 10, but found that he was not being welcomed into the ranks of the top paddlers, perhaps because they saw him as a threat. Pope-Ellis invited him to stay on his farm, near the banks of the Umzimdusi, in a manager’s cottage.

“I was reading his biography at the time and having dinner with him at night, so I could ask any questions,” says Dreyer. He also accompanied “the Pope”, as he is known in Dusi circles, on river trips, learning the minutiae of the river, for instance where a rock was conveniently located to make a takeout easy in deep water.

“He taught me a lot,” says Dreyer, “giving me a blueprint that I could copy into my own race.”

As recently as 2008, when Dreyer won in a K2 with Michael Mbanjwa, Dreyer was still phoning his mentor for advice on particular points. “I value his input in a big way. I know that any advice he gives me will be completely honest.”

Tim Cornish, who won the Dusi four times with Pope-Ellis, says the amazing thing is that Pope-Ellis’s 45 Dusis are consecutive. There is much that can go wrong during the race – broken boats, injury or illness – so his clean record is all the more impressive.

Pope-Ellis has completed three more Dusis than the paddler with the next highest haul, Roly Alborough, who has 42 medals.

By way of comparison, there are Comrades runners who manage to get their number of finishes into the 40s, but by this stage they are well down the field. Pope-Ellis still mixes it up with paddlers young enough to be his grandchildren.

Sports scientist Mike Lambert says there are lots of people in their 20s and 30s who’d give a leg to be as good as Pope-Ellis. He says studies have shown that runners can typically maintain no more than 10 years of competitive running, but that the weight-bearing aspect of running creates more stress than in other cardiovascular sports such as biking, canoeing and swimming.

“Pope-Ellis’s achievement is way beyond the realm of what we expect as normal,” says Lambert, who has completed three Dusis.

He says he would guess that a typical canoeing career would be twice that of a runner, 20 years. Pope-Ellis’s 45 finishes are “completely off the norm. On a bell-shaped curve he is right at the extreme end.”

The Dusi is a curious canoe race, with long portages and big rapids shot in racing canoes designed for use on flat water.

Foreigners have yet to establish themselves at the Dusi, unlike the Comrades, because they have little experience of the challenging mix of steep portages and a huge mass of water (or, as has and can be the case, low to no water).

There were paddlers before Pope-Ellis who helped found and shape the Dusi, but it is fair to say that he put it on the map and made sure it stayed there.

As an athlete, he has excelled at only one event. He didn’t ever qualify for Springbok colours. His name is associated with no other river race. He has had a single focus: the Dusi.

I am sure the legions of cricket, rugby, golf, running, athletics, tennis and football fans will disagree and passionately make cases for their candidates as the greatest South African sportsperson.

But for the way Pope-Ellis has dominated his chosen sport, be it by winning, giving advice freely or coming back year after year to record remarkable, age-defying performances, he would be my choice for our greatest sporting hero. Ever!

The 2010 Powerade Dusi Canoe Marathon runs from January 21 to 23.

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Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie is M&G's business editor. A journalist for more than 30 years, he has worked in senior positions at most major titles in the country. Davie is a Nieman Fellow (1995-1996) and cyberspace innovator, having co-founded SA's first online-only news portal, Woza, and the first online stockbroking operation. He is a lecturer at Wits Journalism. In his spare time he can be found riding a bicycle, usually somewhere remote.

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