As the television cameras surveyed the competitors before the start of the men’s 1 500m final at the World Championships last Sunday, commentator Steve Ovett was surprisingly effusive in his remarks about Johan Cronjé.
Ovett, himself a former 1 500m world record holder, paid as much attention to Cronjé as to the hot favourites and noted with obvious admiration that he was a seven-time national champion in the event and had recently broken the national record.
Ovett’s regard for Cronjé was heartwarming for South African viewers, but was a little surprising as the athlete’s South African 1 500m record of 3:33.46, set earlier this year, placed him only 20th on the 2013 world ranking list going into the championships.
Ovett would nevertheless have been acutely aware that over the years South Africa has produced a number of world-beating middle-distance athletes.
Odds against Cronjé
In 1981, Ovett was handed a shock defeat by Sydney Maree over 1 500m in Rieti, Italy, with Maree outkicking Ovett in the final stages. Two years later, Maree briefly snatched the 1 500m world record from Ovett.
Despite occasional impressive individual performances by South African athletes, the weight of history was firmly stacked against Cronjé making a significant impact in Moscow. Upon his return to South Africa after the championships, he admitted: “I was not certain that I had what it took to win a medal at a world championship.”
This was not surprising because South African 1 500m athletes in particular have been cursed with wretched luck. When eventually he got to compete internationally for the United States, Maree could not reproduce the form of his younger years. International competition also came too late for Johan Fourie, who at the height of his career was cut down by a disabling virus.
When a world-class South African 1 500m athlete finally made it to a global championship, disaster struck.
Challenging path to Championships
Johan Landsman, whose 20-year-old 1 500m mark Cronjé bettered, was eliminated in the heats of the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart after falling at the start. More recently, Cronjé’s great friend and rival, Juan van Deventer, looked set to become a force in world athletics after finishing sixth in the Olympic 1 500m final in 2008, but was subsequently plagued by a succession of potentially career-ending injuries, including a collision with a car during training in 2011.
Cronjé’s own path to his World Championships bronze medal has also been challenging. At 31, he was the oldest man in the field. Born in Bloemfontein, he had to shoulder the burden of expectation placed on him by his evident world-class natural talent and the athletics achievements of his parents. His father, Danie, was a Springbok steeplechaser and his mother, Sarina, held the national records over 800m, 1 500m and 3 000m in the early 1980s.
For most of his career he struggled with the pressure placed on him to perform: “I wanted to do well so badly that I pushed myself too hard in training and I was continually injured,” he explains.
He pays tribute to Van Deventer, who pushed him hard in the domestic season. “When competing against Juan I trained seriously and thought about my races.”
He also credits the support structure provided by his wife, Claire, his parents and his coach, DB Prinsloo, which has allowed him to train effectively despite holding down a full-time job as an investment consultant.
“When I find a gap in my daily work routine, DB will always be there on an hour’s notice to supervise a session,” he said.
Despite dark rumours of widespread drug abuse in international athletics, Cronjé prides himself on being a “clean” athlete. He said the stringent drug testing in Moscow aided his cause.
“The important thing about my medal is that South African 1 500m athletes can now believe they can achieve at this level.”
Cronjé’s race in Moscow was described by middle-distance coach Ian Harries as “a tactical nightmare”. With 200m remaining, Cronjé found himself running “boxed in” in the inside lane without room to move out and challenge for medals.
Matthews Temane, whose famous kick won him many races in the 1980s, was critical of Cronjé’s tactics, saying: “He did not dictate when he wanted to kick.”
By contrast, Temane’s old adversary, Johan Fourie, believed being boxed in worked to Cronjé’s advantage: “By being boxed in, he was forced to kick late and was still strong in the last 50m of the race when most athletes start tying up. When a gap opened on the inside in the final metres, he had a clear run at the line.”
For local athletics, Cronjé’s bronze medal had a strongly redemptive quality. Not only did it save team South Africa the indignity of returning home without a medal, it also broke the long run of bad fortune for South Africa’s 1 500m athletes.
Fourie, whose appearance at track meets filled stadiums in the 1980s, said: “It was worth gold for South Africa. It opens the door for South African middle-distance athletes to start believing. This medal is the start of a new era for South African middle-distance running.”
Off the track, one can only hope that, just as Cronjé found his way to a medal through the phalanx of surging athletes around him, the major stakeholders in athletics can also find a way to work together effectively to ensure that South Africa’s athletics talent comes to the fore.