BY CLEMENT DU PLESSIS
This is the first chapter of a two-part series about the versatile South African champion athlete and record holder Alex Abercrombie of Harold Cressy High School who also made his mark at SA club level.
TRAVELLING from District Six to Paarl at the age of six for a short sprint in which he came third was enough to spark an interest in athletics in Alex Abercrombie.
His father by the same names and member of the Crofton Harriers Amateur Athletics Club had taken him to a Boxing Day meeting at the Dal Josaphat Stadium in Paarl in 1957.
“I remember running in a short sprint, the distance could have been a 50 yard or 75-yard open race for youngsters. I finished in third place and ever since I wanted to be an athlete,” recalls Abercrombie.
The Abercrombie/Youle family lived in St Leger Street, which ran into Upper Ashley Street and near the Avalon Bioscope, District Six before moving to Kepple Street in Walmer Estate then Cauvin Road in District Six and later to Bromley Road in Gleemoor, Athlone. He was in Std 7 (grade 9) at Harold Cressy High School in Roeland Street in 1966 when the family was evicted because of the draconian Group Areas Act under apartheid.
He was a pupil at the Sydney Street Primary School near the Old Market which is now the Good Hope Centre, where he excelled in the sprints.
(Because of the Group Areas Act, Sydney Street Primary School in Cape Town was demolished in 1978)
He was selected to the Salt River Schools Sports Union’s athletics team while at primary school in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The sprint distances for boys under 13 were 90 yards and 120 yards.
Abercrombie’s progression in the sport reached a pinnacle at Harold Cressy High School, one of the top academic and sports schools in the Cape, if not the country.
Colin Barendilla, the sports master at the school and a young Kenny Roman (Cressy) were already household names in athletics circles.
SA schools champion
While there, Abercrombie had the good fortune of training with Roman.
Abercrombie would later also make his mark at WP and SA schools and club level in 1966.
He was the South African Senior Schools Sports Association’s boys under 15 100 yards and 220 yard champion in 1966. WP was also the SASSSA relay champions in 1966.
And in 1967, he was the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union’s (WPSSSU) boys under 16 100 yard and 220-yard champion.
He racked up several 100 yard and 220-yard records while at Harold Cressy, but it was his duels with Ivan Masters of Alexander Sinton and later in the boys under 17 age group with a newcomer to athletics Herman Gibbs also of Alexander Sinton in 1968 which drew the attention of spectators.
“When the announcer at the A Section and at the Champion of Champions called the boys under 17 100 yard finalists to report to the starting line, everybody filtered back into the stand to watch our races,” says Abercrombie.
By then, Abercrombie had already built a stellar reputation in athletics.
And Masters was a big talking point. The athlete with the great heart, writes the Cape Herald in March 1969.
Abercrombie, because of his pedigree and achievements in the sport, had been approached by a ‘middle person’ to leave Harold Cressy and enrol at Sinton. Abercrombie rejected the request.
Sinton would have had the three best boys under 17 sprinters in the prestigious fold of the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union in 1968. The honour of having the three best sprinters at one athletics meeting fell to the A Section – a section reserved for the top eight schools in senior schools’ athletics.
At the A Section in 1968, Masters and Abercrombie were to compete in heat one of the boys under 17 100 yards on the cinder track of Green Point Track.
That changed, however, when the track referee Richard Rive decided that Abercrombie and Gibbs were to run against each other in heat one.
The race ended in a dead heat. The time given was 10,4 seconds after the two athletes bumped into each other on the finish line.
Gibbs picks up the story in the 100-yard final, “I did break – I got a five-stride lead in the final and won the race. The Sinton supporters who sat opposite the winning post were ecstatic, but then their excitement was drowned out when the place judge responsible for third place handed me the sucker stick (3rd place). The track referee Richard Rive reversed the result and placed me first, Masters second and Abercrombie third.”
Masters won the 220 yards at the A Section and the two sprints at the Champion of Champions. He clocked 10,5 seconds in the 100 yards. Interestingly, the third placed runner was Henry Davids of Trafalgar High School who held the SA schools’ boys 19 under 100m record of 10,6 seconds in 1970.
Abercrombie who came second to Masters in the 220 yards won the high jump in a record height of 5 feet and 7 inches.
Gibbs wins the 100m, Abercrombie the 200m
At the SA schools championships in Durban in 1968, Gibbs won the 100 metres in 11 seconds flat and the tall and powerful Abercrombie, better suited for the 200m, had taken first place in 23 seconds flat. Abercrombie also won the high jump in 5 feet 6 inches. Masters was second in both sprints.
(The metric system had been used for the first time at an SA schools’ meeting in 1968 – from yards [imperial system] to metres)
Needless to say, they won the 4x100m relay with nonchalant ease with Gibbs leading off, followed by Lawrence Jacobs (Livingstone), Abercrombie with Masters anchoring the relay.
Abercrombie was an enigma in that he excelled in almost any athletic event.
He could very well have competed in the long jump, but the event had gone to Harold Cressy teammate Gladstone Foster.
“The PT master Colin Barendilla was good at spreading the talent around to maximise the points,” explains Abercrombie.
Foster did well and came second to George van der Ross at the SA schools championships in Durban.
Even though the three sprinters were rivals on the track, they were also friends off the track since 1968.
“Yes, we are still friends. Gibbs organised a meeting with Masters who is on a five-week visit to Cape Town from Australia this festive season,” says Abercrombie. Masters leaves for Australia on 15 January 2019.
The rivalry between these three athletes lasted for about three years with the WP and SA championship titles changing hands at school and club level.
The competition extended in the Andrewena Series, a club competition, with Masters competing for Bellville South Athletic Club (BSA), Abercrombie for Harold Cressy and Gibbs for Hewat. Master’s was also previously a member of the Athlone Athletic Club.
Godfrey Jacobs got into the mix with Abercrombie, Masters and Gibbs. At a club meeting, Jacobs from Livingstone High School upset Abercrombie and Masters in that order in the boys under 17 100 yards.
Masters won the 220 yards on the day, with Abercrombie second and L White of Livingstone came third.
Masters wins the WP sprint titles
Masters reversed the results at the 1968 WP club championships when he won both the 100 yards and 220 yards ahead of Abercrombie and Jackie Swanepoel of Athlone High School.
Abercrombie was quick to set the record straight when he subsequently beat Masters and White in the 100 yards at an Andrewena Series meeting in 1968.
Gibbs was the SA junior men’s 100m sprint champion in 1969 (clubs). Swanepoel was second and Jacobs third. V Pillay of Natal won the 200m with Abercrombie and Swanepoel taking second and third place respectively.
Abercrombie was second again behind Pillay in the 400m who had clocked 50,8 seconds – an SA record.
(Swanepoel is a story on its own as well. He had beaten the likes of Gibbs, Henry Davids, Ismail Collier and Lawrence Jacobs in 1970 – probably his golden year when he and Davids held the SA schools boys under 19 100m record of 10,6 seconds. It was an age group lower than the boys open)
Masters beats Allan O’Ryan
Masters grabbed the headlines spectacularly in the Cape Herald in 1969 when it read in bold capital letters IVAN MASTERS IS TOP RECORD BREAKER, with a fantastic photo of him breasting the tape and still running flat out.
It prompted the newspaper to say, ‘a great-hearted athlete’. He had just beaten Allan O’Ryan of Hewat and A Adams (R) in an SA Schools record time of 50,5 seconds. The meeting attracted 6000 wildly excited spectators at Green Point Track’.
The stellar names mentioned thus far all had their place in the sun on one occasion(s) or another.
- Next week: Abercrombie, the lawyer, businessman and how he took them on in the 400 and 800-metre races.