10 years: a canoeing success

26 March 2004

Despite not being one of the big name sports in South Africa, canoeing has enjoyed good growth in the first 10 years of the country’s democracy, and is well positioned to make a bigger splash still.

A recent chat with Canoeing South Africa’s secretary general, Dave Macleod – well known as the popular stadium announcer for rugby’s Sharks – reveals a sport that has made great strides in its development programme and continues to show healthy expansion.

Macleod, whose enthusiasm and love for the sport is obvious, says the last four or five years have seen especially good growth. He says KwaZulu-Natal is the hub of canoeing in South Africa, but that there is strong support in Gauteng and the Western Cape, with the Eastern Cape also featuring nicely.

There is a reason why canoeing is confined to certain places. Access, Macleod says, is one of two big hurdles that canoeing faces; in some provinces there is simply not enough water available to support the sport.

The second problem is one of cost but, says Macleod, this is something that has been tackled well in the 10 years since South Africa became a democracy. In 1994, he reckons, canoeing was an elitist sport, but that is now changing “pretty boldly”.

Overcoming challenges
Equipment isn’t cheap – it costs about R5 000 for good start-up equipment – but that challenge has been overcome to a large degree in the last decade as stocks have been built up for previously disadvantaged paddlers.

Transport concerns have also been addressed – you’re obviously going nowhere if you can’t get your canoe to water.

Macleod is eager to talk about the successes of the development programme because he has some boasting to do. He says a generation of elite paddlers has emerged from the first generation of new democracy paddlers 10 years ago.

Michael Mbanjwa, the first black paddler to earn national colours on merit, finished fifth in the 2004 Hansa Powerade Dusi Canoe Marathon, the most popular race in South Africa.

The 2004 Dusi also saw Loveday Zondi top the under-21 paddler category, while three black paddlers – Master Cele, Cyprian Ngidi, Simon Dube – have made it onto the international slalom stage. In fact, says Macleod, they’re off to Athens shortly to train at the Olympic canoeing venue.

There is support for the trio both locally and internationally, he adds, and he fully expects that they’ll be sporting national colours at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

African Championship success
One very successful avenue for developing South Africa’s paddlers has been the African Championships, at which many of these rising stars have been given the opportunity to excel on the international stage – and they haven’t disappointed.

South African canoeing’s love affair with river marathon events is a result of past international isolation, Macleod explains. With no opportunities to compete internationally, a strong domestic calendar was built up, but it also meant that disciplines such as sprint canoeing, wild water and slalom were neglected.

Right now, South Africa is ranked fifth in the world in marathon racing. Hank McGregor won the men’s title at the World Championships, while Ant Stott captured bronze. Simon van Gysen finished second in the boy’s race. It’s a remarkable ranking considering that South Africans don’t compete in C-boat racing (the kneeling Canadian style), which also counts towards the rankings.

In the sprint events, the list of top performers is thinner. Allan van Coller will be returning to the Olympics when he takes part in Athens. His times have improved by two seconds over the short 500 metres sprint, but the world standard has been rising too, and in sprint events anything can happen on any given day.

Developing slalom
Slalom is really the Cinderella discipline of canoeing in South Africa. The country boasts one world-class performer in Cameron McIntosh, but it is in slalom that the greatest opportunities for growth exist.

That’s why the development programme has been stressing that a real opportunity exists for young paddlers to go places in slalom. Here, the “dream team” of “Master” Cele, Cyprian Ngidi and Simon Dube are excelling. It’s a huge drawcard overseas, says Macleod. He attended the last world championships in Germany, and 145 nations participated, with crowds of 16 000 in attendance.

In a parallel move, C-boat racing is being developed in sprint and marathon racing. With the successes of the slalom C-boat development, top paddlers need no more evidence of the opportunities this presents. Michael Mbanjwa has taken note, and wants to specialise in the C1 discipline, for both sprints and marathon.

There have been successes, but Canoeing South Africa is not resting on its laurels. The organisation has implemented a new High Performance structure to make sure the sport continues to make progress. Anton Erasmus has been appointed the High Performance director, charged with managing and coaching coaches at regional and grass-roots level, while the structure also includes a number of other top-level elite coaches.

Attracting the big guns
Interestingly, Macleod says the country’s most popular event, the Dusi Marathon, which draws over 2 000 contestants, will never attract top competitors from overseas. He says they’re intimidated by the “unthinkable” task of a three-day, 120 kilometre race that includes 25 kilometres of portaging.

The Hansa Powerade Fish Canoe Marathon, though, does pull big-name competitors from abroad. It happens right at the end of the European season, which means its timing is good, and it is far less rocky than the Dusi, with plenty of flat water.

That means top paddlers can be competitive because they need only a day or two to scout the hazards of the course. Macleod points to world champion Manuel Busto Fernandes’ third-place finish in his first attempt at the Fish as evidence of this.

He reckons South Africa is a very popular canoeing destination, but even now opportunities that exist to exploit its treasures are not being properly used.

The national calendar is structured in such a way that there are plenty of exciting races from the end of the Cape winter season, which culminates in the four-day Berg marathon in July, and the two-day Breede marathon in September, to excite both local and foreign paddlers.

The summer season starts with the Fish Marathon at the beginning of October, followed by the Vaal Marathon, the Land Rover 50-Miler, the Dusi, the Umkomaas Marathon and the Drakensberg Challenge, which happens in late February.

‘Roughest marathon race in the world’
Foreigners are amazed at how attractive the calendar is, Macleod says. The races are fun – but testing.

Recently, world top 10 ranked wild water paddler Pascal Lucker competed in the Umkomaas Marathon, where he managed a top 10 finish. He was in no doubt about the difficulty of the challenge, declaring after the race: “It’s the roughest marathon race in the world.”

Canoeing South Africa pitches the fun aspect of the sport to would-be tourists and competitors. South Africa has rivers and venues for paddlers that are hard to match anywhere else in the world, Macleod maintains.

He mentions a group of people from Ireland who recently toured South Africa for four weeks. They purchased canoes in South Africa at a fraction of the price that they would have cost overseas – “South African-made marathon canoes are regarded as the best made river kayaks in the world”, says Macleod – and had an absolute ball touring the country and taking part in contests all over.

Ten years of democracy has no doubt done South African canoeing the world of good. Bring on the next 10!

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