Athletes count costs as Covid-19 spreads

Athletes in individual sports have been hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic as most of them operate on an earn-as-you-play basis, unlike those in team sports who have some form of financial cushion. 

The virus has infected almost three million people across the world. It has wreaked havoc on many spheres of life, including sport. Middle and long-distance runner Mapaseka Makhanya says even though she understands and is grateful for the measures the South African government has taken to curb the spread of the virus – including placing the country on lockdown for over a month – she is however worried about what this will do to her season. 

“The coronavirus has had a very negative impact, especially in how I have planned to start my season,” she said. “I was looking forward to many marathons, especially the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon that was meant to happen on 25 January in Hong Kong. I had planned to run it to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. It’s easier to qualify in international marathons because they have many pacers in the race unlike other qualifying marathons here in South Africa.

“Running is my bread and butter. I get most of my money from running. My plan was to chase time this season because I wanted to prepare for the Olympics,” Makhanya said. “I had decided that I will get most of my money from the Two Oceans half marathon and the Spar Ladies 10km that is ran throughout the year. I am hoping that they won’t cancel all the races so that one can be able to survive throughout the year.”

Using lockdown productively 

The 35-year-old who was crowned the 2013 SA Sportswoman of the Year has other forms of income but they are also linked to sport, which means they have also dried up.  


“Everything is on standstill. I had also started doing motivational speaking. Even though I don’t get to speak a lot but the little that I get from it really helps. I also do private exercises. All those things have stopped now,” she said. 

The suspension of sport and the lockdown doesn’t mean that Makhaya is idle at home though. 

“Even though everything has stopped, I have figured out that not everything is negative about it because I get to work on strength training. I do little things like core that I ignore while [doing my regular] training because I concentrate on running and speed training. The exercises that I do now will really help in the long run because they help with having less injuries. I will focus mostly on them until everything is over and we are free to compete.” 

The uncertainty caused by the spread of Covid-19, and the lockdown that has been placed until the end of April, make it hard for Makhanya to make any long-term plans. 

“Once we know when we will start competing we will then decide if I’ll be chasing time or money. If the lockdown is going to stretch for a long time, I’m sure I will run for money. But if it ends sooner, my coach will sit and decide that I’ll run for time because my biggest goal is to qualify for the Olympics Marathon.” 

The Olympics that were meant to be staged this year in Japan will now run from 23 July to 8 August next year. 

Other athletes in better positions 

Bong’musa Mthembu, a seasoned long-distance runner and the reigning Two Oceans Marathon champion, says he’s not really worried about the cancellation of marathons because he knows that the situation is beyond the control of government and Athletics South Africa. 

“I have decided to sit down and heed the call of staying at home. I’m not training, I am just enjoying spending time at home. I will see what will happen after the lockdown then we can start with the preparations again,” Mthembu said. 

“By the look of things I won’t be able to run all marathons that are before June. I’m now looking after June if the conditions allow us to go back to the road. What’s more important now is to follow all the rules and be a good example to my community and everyone who follows my running journey. 

“I know when the time comes for me to prepare, I will be able to do it and be at the highest level again. At this point we cannot complain about anything because everyone can see that the situation is beyond our control.” 

Mthembu, a three-time winner of the Comrades Marathon, doesn’t have to worry much about the financial impact of Covid-19, unlike other athletes. 

“My finances are not too bad, I’ve also spoken to my sponsors Arthur Ford and Nike International, they haven’t changed anything to what we had agreed on. Even though I have spoken to them, we really don’t know how they will be affected as corporates. I have heard from other runners that other sponsors cut the percentage [of the money they give them]. I am hoping it’s not going to happen to me in the near future. But for now I will be able to live comfortably.”

The situation isn’t that rosy for boxer Hector “Hekkie” Budler who last fought in December 2018. “The coronavirus has hit me very badly, emotionally and financially,” he said. 

“I was supposed to fight on 28 March. l trained so hard for that fight. I was banking on it financially since I haven’t fought in a long time. I had hoped that if I do well in it many more fights would come my way. It’s so bad because I also do private training. With coronavirus, I can’t even do that because we have to stay at home and keep distance. It’s going to be a hard time for me financially if the coronavirus takes longer than expected.”

Budler, who is South Africa’s most decorated boxing champion, has a shot at a big bout when normality returns but he is worried what state he will be in when that opportunity arises. 

“I am currently rated as the No. 1 light flyweight by the World Boxing Council. Being rated No. 1 means I am in line to challenge the champion Ken Shiro of Japan. Before challenging Shiro I need to get a few fights that I can warm up and boost my confidence with. With the state that we are in, it’s going to be hard to get those warm up fights but I’m hoping for the best. 

“I’m hoping that Boxing in South Africa will not be hit hard by coronavirus. With the rand getting weaker, it is going to be hard for promoters to stage international fights. It will cost us to look for fights overseas in order to be able to get better payments. I am very worried but I’m hoping that boxing will be able to come back stronger in all of this.” 

Government intervention 

On March 25, the Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, announced that government had set aside R150 million to assist athletes and artists who have lost income through the cancellation of their events because of Covid-19. By the time the cut-off time was reached on 6 April, over 6 000 applications were made. 

“I only heard about it after the closing date, I did not apply. I hope they will open the applications again since the lockdown is continuing,” Makhanya said. 

Mthembu is part of those over 6 000 applicants. 

“We’ve applied for the sports relief fund. I am sure it will help a lot,” Mthembu’s agent Thuso Mosiea said. “Mthembu already lost one major income by not participating in the Two Oceans Marathon [It was cancelled]. Our target was Two Oceans and Comrades Marathon of which I don’t see it happening this year.”

Buddler is also playing the waiting game now. “I have applied for it,” he said. “I don’t know how much I will get. I’ll be grateful for anything that I will receive. It will really help a lot in these trying times.” 

This article was first published on New Frame

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