Can’t touch Vaal at hammer time
In the far north of the Free State lies a large industrial town called Sasolburg, which was established in 1954 with the aim of providing housing and other facilities for the employees of Sasol.
It is not exactly the place where you'd expect sports champions to be groomed. But it is here, at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) and Sasolburg Technical High School (STHS) Hammer Academy, that one can regularly find the Commonwealth Games hammer throw record holder Chris Harmse, and South African under-19 hammer throw record holder Tshepang Makhethe honing their skills, together with 20 or so children ranging in age from 11 upwards.
"It's a great experience for the kids," says Basie Koen, who was instrumental in initiating the academy on the premises of the STHS. "To have the Commonwealth record holder training with us on many afternoons is great for the kids – they have contact with a champion."
For Koen, who himself has national colours for the weight throw, a track and field event that is similar, hammer throw is something that is "in the blood".
His father, the late Charlie Koen Senior, was the South African hammer throw champion for eight years in the 1950s, and finished sixth with a throw of 202 feet and six inches at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, and his brother Charlie Koen Junior once broke the South African junior hammer throw and shot put records over the same weekend in Standerton.
Koen is the dean of the sport academy at VUT, which partnered with the high school to initiate a community outreach programme at the school to attract kids from a nearby township as well as visitors from all over South Africa.
Their focus here is only on hammer throw, and to this end Koen enthusiastically praises the headmaster of the school for being supportive enough to establish two caged hammer throw circles, with additional circles on which athletes can turn and do drills, as well as a field used exclusively for hammer throw and a "fantastic gym with Olympic weights – rubber weights, which you can pick up and throw down; you don't have to put them down – and a hammer store where we hang our hammers."
Koen says he considers the facility to be the best of its kind on the African continent. But as the most experienced of cooks will tell you, having the right ingredients is one thing, but to see results a recipe is also essential. It is here where Koen comes in. As he himself says, he "burns the candle on both sides" to ensure that the academy offers a world-class training and development programme.
"I coach very hard. I have competed in many international events in the masters category – when I do so, I speak to as many world-class hammer throwers as I can. I also do a lot of reading and researching to keep myself up to date on the latest developments in Europe, because hammer throw is very much an event in which European countries like Hungary, Germany and Russia lead the scene, so I look a lot in their direction with regard to programming and technique."
Commitment and discipline are the hallmark of an outstanding athlete, and with the assistance of the mother of two of his charges, Koen ensures that the youngsters who attend the academy (more than half of whom are black) train – using a programme that is constantly updated – six days a week, except for in the heart of winter and summer, when they also get Fridays off.
His dedication has paid off. Last weekend Tshepang Makhete, who came to him for assistance as a 13-year-old learner at the school, won the male athlete of the meeting accolade at the South African School Championships in Polokwane, where he hurled a record-breaking 70.67m in the under-19 hammer throwing division. Makhete also finished an impressive sixth at the World Youth Championships in Donetsk, Ukraine, last year.
"I'd say all this has happened by the grace of God – it's difficult to believe, I still can't grab hold of coming sixth at the World Youth Championships," says the 17-year-old. "There isn't much pressure on me, I get a lot of support from the school principal, the school governing body, my parents, the other parents as well."
He says he first took an interest in hammer throw as a primary school learner, while watching it during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Shortly after taking up the sport, he started attending the academy, which he proudly calls the "hammer central" of South Africa.
"This is the only place in South Africa where you have such a strong setup. Most of the athletes I've competed against are interested in what's going on here, and want to become involved."
Unstable administrative environment
Makhethe adds that, although he wants to pursue hammer throw seriously beyond high school, the recent unstable administrative environment surrounding South African athletics does concern him. "It's difficult when you think of all the circumstances with Athletics South Africa – I'm going to need a lot of support, like sponsorship, financial assistance, etcetera – all the things needed for a professional career."
He has already hurled 76.34m this season, which puts him among the world's top five athletes. The prospects for him to excel on an international stage are exciting.
"This is his ‘baby year' for the under-19 division – next year he'll still be competing in that division so he can move up over 80m," says Koen. "He has great talent, he took on my advice about technique very quickly, and he has a lot of speed and a lot of determination – I think he can go a long way in the future."
One of Koen's first protégés, Chris Harmse – also an STHS boy – went a long way indeed. Now almost 41 years old, next weekend Harmse will be vying for his 19th South African national title in Pretoria. In August, he'll be attempting to become the African hammer throw champion for the seventh time in Morocco, and he will defend his Commonwealth Games title in Scotland in July.
"I would be alone for hours," says Harmse. "It took me a while to get used to it, to sitting hours alone on the field. Basie tried his best to be there with me. I had to try and make the best of it, but it was rough. I was always worried about what was going to happen after me; overseas you have senior athletes, and younger athletes feeding off them."
Of the academy, Harmse says: "It's an amazing environment – these kids are getting the best knowledge available. Basie knows how to guide them. I'm still competing – at some stage, they'll come up the ranks and beat me, but I still see myself having a role; I never had competition in South Africa. I had to fight it out on an international level."
He has great hope in Makhete, who will compete against him at the South African Senior Champs. "He's got amazing potential. He's built ideally for hammer throw, nice and tall, not injury prone. I think he's going to go very far but he must get some assistance, because it's rough to pour your life into something and get no benefit at the end of the day.
"At some stage he must go overseas and train there, and he'll need money for that. His temperament is good. I hope South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee will realise they have a great potential champion and give him support."