Had a business school case study of tug-of-war been done 10 years ago, it would have provided a thick file on how not to run an already marginal sport. Tug-of-war was irrelevant, provincial and backward; its numbers were shrinking and nobody cared. Proverbially speaking, toutrek – as it is colourfully named in Afrikaans – was on the ropes.
Such a bleak prognosis failed to factor into the drive of administrators such as the effervescent Anton Botha, the vice-president of the national tug-of-war federation, and sundry citizens who have somehow been captivated by the sport’s old-fashioned vitality and romance.
Patricia Nkosi, for example, an English teacher at EJ Singwane Secondary outside of Nelspruit, found herself bewitched by this seemingly simple sport two years ago. She spoke to Booitjie Gama, a fellow teacher at EJ Singwane and head coach of the school’s toutrek teams, and was converted.
“I was in netball,” she explains. “Then I said, ‘No, this sport is very exciting,’ so I moved across. The kids are so committed. They never go home. Every afternoon after school they pull the rope.”
Nkosi was part of a team of trekkers who travelled through the night to Secunda recently for the Mpumalanga championships, a satellite tournament that is a prelude to the national championships at Gezina in Pretoria this weekend.
In stark contrast to how things were six or seven years ago, the nationals are eagerly awaited. There will be teams from around the country competing in several weight divisions, development teams from Nkosi’s neck of the woods and women’s teams in abundance, many of them from the police.
The South African national women’s team is highly competitive internationally and – had it not been for the sport’s realisation that they had to broaden their base and tap into rural areas it didn’t normally consider – such teams wouldn’t feature on the map.
Tug-of-War athletes smear a gluey concoction of chalk and petrol on their hands to harden them up in preparation for the big heave. (Photos: Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)
Nkosi’s team didn’t do too well in Secunda, although they didn’t do too badly either. They pulled with gusto, and were immensely proud of their all-maroon kit (toutrek‘s answer to Moroka Swallows) and looked forward to a time when they would be powerful enough to compete with some of the sport’s hardened masters, such as the men of the Pretoria Tug-of-War Club.
Known as PTC to insiders, the team is full of experienced campaigners, men such as Jacques “Pottie” Potgieter, who, along with some of his teammates, is still hoping to go to the World Championships in Georgia in the United States in a month’s time, despite the fact that the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) has refused the federation’s application for funding.
Looking like a Roman centurion, with an angular nose and muscular calves, Pottie is to tug-of-war what Victor Matfield is to rugby. When he turns the palms of his hands upwards you can see the gum-streaked callouses at the base of his fingers, the battle scars of years at the top level.
The stains come from a kind of poultice beloved of trekkers. It consists of the chalk used by boxers, brewed with petrol and boiled into a kind of glue before being smeared on to the hands to make them harder. It is the hands that are the most crucial item in a trekkers‘ armoury because they have to support the weight of a puller. Watch the sport for any length of time and you realise that many pullers have the sinuous strength of biltong: with a high body-weight-to-strength ratio. They are strong and wiry rather than obviously muscular.
“I’ve done body building, weight-lifting and powerlifting in my time,” says Ian du Plessis, an experienced puller and member for the day at Secunda of a team for the intellectually impaired from the Gateway School in Ruimsig, Johannesburg. “And tug-of-war is by far the most demanding. People think that we’ve got to look like bodybuilders. That’s not the case. You’ve just got to be strong and hard as nails.”
Modified army boots, ski boots and ice-skating boots with the blades removed are among the kind of footwear preferred by trekkers.
Like all sports, there are certain do’s and don’ts in tug-of-war. For instance, you can’t “climb the rope” and you have to keep your hands in the same position on the rope throughout a pull; you can’t sit down and you aren’t permitted to “carry” the guy in front of you if he falls down. Neither can you “lock” the rope underneath your armpit, although you are allowed to wear boots (often army surplus) or modified footwear such as ski boots or converted ice-skating boots with the blades removed. The boots are also permitted to have steel heels, which help to dig into the ground, although these aren’t allowed to be more than 6mm thick.
For all the paraphernalia, technique is vital. Most pullers cut the side of their boot at a certain angle into the ground for maximum traction; and traction is obviously important because momentum is most frequently gained not only by strength but also by seizing collectively on moments of weakness or imbalance in the opposition. It is only very good and accomplished toutrek teams that can deal with this kind of reverse, wrestling the pendulum back in their direction, pulling like hell, and often taking a long, lung-burning time to do so.
Gateway School team – for whom Du Plessis was turning out in an honorary capacity – was surprisingly good in this regard. They gave PTC and “Pottie” Potgieter a serious run for their money in Secunda, not bad for a team that wasn’t expected to achieve much at first.
“Tug-of-war makes the team very calm,” says Dougie Oosthuizen, a toutrek champion who has been coaching at Gateway for 15 years. “It helps with their balance and their co-ordination. But most of all, it gives them structure, which is important.”
Oosthuizen (62) has been associated with both the sport’s halcyon days and the period when it nearly nosedived into nothingness. His missus is finally fed up with it all, he tells me good-naturedly, and he’s rather looking forward to calling it a day. This might be more difficult than it would appear, however. Oosthuizen is an elder in tug-of-war circles. He’s been pulling since 1978 and remembers well the glorious day in 1987 when the Springboks pulled against England in the Police Championships in Pretoria. “They said we were so strong that they didn’t even have time to test us,” he says nostalgically.
As a result of the general turnaround in the sport, South Africa is currently ranked fourth in the world. After winning bronze at the World Games last year, their senior women pulled ahead of a few of their rivals to sneak into third in the international rankings. Their under-19 women’s side is one of the most rapidly improving teams in that category in the world.
In four years’ time Cape Town will host the World Championships. The honour is the ultimate sign of approval. After falling over, the sport is back on its feet again, finally pulling its weight.
In many ways such rejuvenation restores the natural order because a South African team participated in the St Louis Olympics of 1904. Photographs of the pullers show men with long trousers, magnificent moustaches and an upright, pre-modern style, battling it out against each other in what looks like a long-jump pit. The sport has moved some way since, although perhaps not quite as far as one might imagine.