Cecil Blows, the doyen of high school athletics

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By Clement du Plessis

THE Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (an affiliate of the South African Senior Schools Sports Association, under the auspices of the South African Council on Sport) only ever had one convenor who did the job for thirty years.

Cecil Blows has seen it all when it comes to track and field athletics.

Blows Insert
Cecil Blows, 75, teaches at Wittebome High School.

Not only was he an eight times senior men’s sprint champion; he was the longest-serving sports convenor, and organiser of the world’s largest gathering of track and field athletes at a single venue in a single season – better known as the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union’s (WPSSSU) inter-schools athletics meetings.

These meetings comprised of 101 high schools in the Cape Peninsula which were divided into sections of about eight schools each per meeting, with the number of pupils ranging from about 800-1000 per school (all principals, pupils, and teaching staff were present). Most schools entered from 100 to 135 athletes each.  

Blows had a team of highly efficient and dedicated sports administrators who assisted in making sport available to thousands of high school athletes in the Cape Peninsula.

“The inter-schools athletics meetings attracted athletes from all social backgrounds and gave them the opportunity to compete in an organised event,” he recalls.

After the inter-schools athletics meetings, also known as the sectional meetings, the top qualifying athletes would compete in the WPSSSU Champion of Champions for a place in the Western Province side to compete in the interprovincial athletics meeting, which usually took place on the Easter Saturday. This athletics meeting became known as the SASSSA Champs (South African Senior Schools Sports Association’s athletics meeting).

Birth of a sports union

The genesis of the WPSSSU was in Kimberley in 1954 when a former athlete, sports administrator and academic Harry Hendricks was at the forefront of the formation of an independent senior schools body and the decision had been taken to separate the primary schools from the high schools. (Hendricks was the last serving South African Amateur Athletics Board president which was essentially the senior body of club athletics.)

Harry Head and Shoulders Insert
Harry Hendricks.

The Kimberley decision was implemented in 1956.  For the next eight years, schools participated against each other at inter-school and inter-union level and in other forms of competition (such as biangular and triangular meetings).

However, there was no strength-versus-strength structure in place yet to determine who would be the top school and which athletes would qualify for inter-provincial athletics meetings at the SASSSA champs.

Between 1956 and 1964, the primary schools were allocated the Green Point Track, simply because of the sheer difference in numbers between the high schools and primary schools.

The high schools used the agricultural grounds of Goodwood, Cape Town.

First inter-house meeting

Alexander Sinton High School’s Dennis Mackay introduced the first inter-house meeting of its kind at the Cape Town school in 1954. (Mackay was a physical training graduate from Wesley Training College.)

Rive Insert
Richard Rive

The inter-house meeting comprised of groups of boys and girls pupils between the ages of 14 to 18 (and sometimes older), together with the teaching staff. With the help of Alexander Sinton’s first principal Franklin Joshua, the groups (houses) were named after the student residences of Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape, essentially a black university where the late South African President Nelson Mandela studied law before moving to Wits University.

At Alexander Sinton the houses were called Beda (red), Iona (blue), Moffat (green) and Wesley (yellow) – this made up the competition for the inter-house athletics meeting.  It was to be the forerunner of the process of eliminations of athletes for bigger and more challenging athletics meetings.

Eliminations were held on different days: sprints on one day, the field events on another, and the long-distance races on the third day (although not all schools made use of three days – some used fewer, others slightly more).

In between, schools had triangular meetings as preparation for the inter-school proper meetings.

Many schools followed this process of sorting out the athletes before the next level of inter-school meetings. But there had been no inter-school meetings in the manner it had been organised from 1964 to 1994 – the year of 1994 being the birth of democracy in South Africa.

Convenor of Athletics

Enter writer and academic Richard Rive, who, at the time, was a school teacher at South Peninsula High School where Attie de Villiers was the principal. Rive, a person of strong character and intellect, and a former athlete himself said to the athletics fraternity (the newly-formed WPSSSU) that “we must have an athletics organiser”.

Eddie May Insert
The names of Harry Hendricks, Eddie May and Richard Rive appear in this 1948 athletics programme as athletes.

Rive summarily appointed Cecil Blows to be the organiser which was to become known as the convenor of the athletics. Still a top athlete in 1964, Blows hand-picked his athletics committee.

At the time, in 1964, there were three sections: Sections A, B, and C (the sectional meetings). Gerald Hendricks of Salt River High School (not Harry Hendricks), Cecil Blows and Richard Rive were the first convenors of inter-school athletics; an event that would eventually become the largest assembly of athletes in the world during apartheid.

Harry Hendricks, integral to the Kimberley decision in 1954, was also the athletics correspondent for The Sun newspaper.

On Friday, January 28, 1955, Hendricks wrote in the newspaper about selection issues and the performance of athletes: “Selectors are however not, in addition, meant to be prophets.”

Several exchanges followed between Hendricks, Rive, and sports administrator Norman Stoffberg which were serious and funny at the same time.

“I agree with Mr Hendricks that selectors are not expected to be clairvoyant, but we expect them to be competent,” writes Rive in the February 4, 1955 edition of The Sun.

Stoffberg replies on Friday, February 11, 1955: “Quite evidently the selectors must have been divided into prizes, surprises and consolation prizes.”

1948 Programme Insert
The cover of the 1948 South African Amateur Athletic & Cycling Board of Control programme, featuring, among others, May, Hendricks and Rive.

Hendricks was a member of the Bellville South Athletics Club (BSA), Stoffberg of Achilles (not Paarl Achilles) and Rive of South Peninsula. Stoffberg’s Achilles Athletics club was a top athletics club and won the Andrewena Cup since 1944 to 1955, except for two seasons (1945-1946 and 1946-1947).

First Champ of Champs

Inter-schools athletics meetings, as described above, were in force for the next 30 years (1964-1994).  Previously (before 1964), schools had to draw their names from a hat to determine in which section they belonged. Before 1964, only an A and B Section existed.

The first Champion of Champions meeting was held at the Green Point Track in 1964. The top eight schools, based on the number of points won on the day, would form the A Section the next year, the next eight schools would be in the B-Section and so on.

These athletics meetings functioned on advanced and meticulous planning. Athletics programmes for each sectional meeting were drawn up professionally and handed out on the day of competition.  Officials were on time and on duty from track referee to field referee.

The WPSSSU had become a powerful political-orientated organisation where the thinking of the disenfranchised school pupils was conscientised – particularly since 1972 when the newly-built Athlone Stadium was put into use for schools’ athletics.

Many of its leaders, such as Peter Meyer, Phillip Tobias and Gert Bam, addressed the schools on the political situation in South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s. The speeches were peppered with words such as “sell outs”, “commodities”, “cosmetic changes”, “discrimination”, “lackeys”, and “nebulous and spurious attempts to level the playing fields”.

Fighting discrimination

Says Blows: “The senior schools, the disenfranchised and oppressed people, opposed a common enemy, fighting discrimination in order to get the same opportunities and fields as the establishment.” (The establishment was the white National Party Government who had legislated and consolidated apartheid between 1948 and 1994.)

Blows Insert Again
Cecil Blows sits at his desk at Wittebome High School where he has been teaching since 1962.

Over time, the WPSSSU had become so powerful that it could tell the education department officials that teachers would not apply for leave on school days when these meetings were held. (The Department of Education expected teachers to take leave on these days, as they did not associate athletics meetings with academic time.)

“It was a school day as far as we were concerned,” remembers Blows. “The inter-school meetings were not open to the public. Only the Champion of Champions meetings were open to the public as these were held on a Saturday.”

The athletics meetings during the summer months galvanised the pupils and helped to showcase their talents while also providing solid entertainment during sports isolation, which ended in 1991/92 with an all-white cricket tour to India.

* Blows has been honoured on three occasions for his contribution to schools sports; from the Sports Science Department of Stellenbosch University on 30 August 2014, the Western Province Sports Organisation on 25 November 2011 (Life Time Sports Achiever) and the Western Cape School Sports Awards in 2011 (Lifetime Achiever).

(Cecil Blows was interviewed by Clement du Plessis, October 2015)

19 thoughts on “Cecil Blows, the doyen of high school athletics

  • May 15, 2018 at 9:25 am
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    The Publisher, I was fortunate to have Mr Cecil Blows as my physical education teacher in 1973/1974 (Std 9 & 10).
    He was also the athletics team coach. Through him, I made the WP team for 100 & 200 metre sprints.
    In 1973 we won the C Section and as a result, Wittebome High School made the A Section for the first time in their history in 1974. I recall that Mr Africa, the school principal and another stalwart, gave us the day off. I was privileged to be selected as the team captain for the 1974 team.
    Much of my achievements I attribute to the guidance, dedication and commitment of Mr Cecil Blows.

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    • May 16, 2018 at 8:33 am
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      The Publisher, yes Bramwell, what an amazing man, a very quiet achiever and a great ambassador to sport, we at Wittebome (1970-1974) had no real perception of our amazing educators at the time, so with deep gratitude we thank you Mr Blows (my Maths teacher btw and my sister’s athletics mentor), our very humble, quiet but ferocious achiever, we salute you!!! 🙂

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  • April 29, 2018 at 9:27 am
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    Dear Publisher, I remember Cecil Blows and Irene Blows- both driven and motivated sports people. Irene was the Athlone High Ladies’ Hockey club treasurer for many years and Cecil and Irene hosted our club meetings at their home. Cecil was also our Hockey coach alongside the late Clyde Kennedy. I officiated at many WPSSSU meetings as a track official, completed my officiators certificate with Cecil Blows under SACOS. Thank you, Cecil, for your tremendous contribution to grassroots sports and non-racial sport at the highest level possible at the time (the 80s).

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  • July 18, 2017 at 4:01 am
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    Dear Publisher, I recall in 1987 we at Salt River High were the convening school of the K-section (one of 12 inter-schools athletics meetings where schools met for competition in the age groups 14-18 years). With the assistance of Mr Blows and his administrators, the meeting was successful.

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  • July 19, 2016 at 5:30 pm
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    I fondly remember my primary school years, representing Balvenie Primary in the sprints and long jump at the Goodwood showgrounds and, in later years, we shifted to the grass surface of the Athlone stadium.
    I actually preferred the Green point Track as the best facility for schools athletics, and also enjoyed representing Tygerberg against the old foe Western Province in the SA Cup competition of SARU. Having settled in NZ 15 years ago, it has given me great pleasure to read about all the great athletes produced during the years of Apartheid.
    “Rest in Peace, BA Adams”
    .

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  • July 19, 2016 at 5:04 pm
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    I would like to draw your attention to the schools in the Northern areas, like Elsie’s River, Elswood etc who also produced athletes of distinction over the years To name a few: The sprint twin brothers Henry and Abe Charles, shot put supremo Jennifer Carstens, long distance exponent Kurt Konza, sprint queen Marlene Johannes. All of them represented Western Province.

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  • April 3, 2016 at 8:51 pm
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    I remember Mr Blows so well. What an inspiring man he was during my school days back in the late 80s early 90s, alongside Mrs Pat van Vote and the rest of the management. Running on that grass track at Athlone stadium and just thinking about it, gives me goosebumps

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  • October 18, 2015 at 1:57 pm
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    Mr Cecil Blows we salute you

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  • October 17, 2015 at 4:35 pm
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    I was honoured to be on the field at a very young age as mum was a recorder at most inter-provincials in Cape Town. It was wonderful to see all the gentlemen role models. For us, they typified what type of organizers we should be, and it has been really helpful in my life as an athletics director. But Cecil was also a great hockey player who played in the same team as my dad at Mocambo and defences always had to be on their toes when he was on the field. A very respected man on and off the field.

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  • October 17, 2015 at 5:20 am
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    I attended Wittebome High from 1977-1981. Mr Blows was a disciplinarian of note. Coincidentally Philip Tobias was a neighbour of ours who moved in with his family in the 70s. Good old Ottery Road! Can’t believe Mr Blows is still teaching! All the best sir!

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  • October 16, 2015 at 10:32 am
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    I had the privilege of being an official (starter) at numerous WPSSSU events during the 80s and 90s. Looking back we have to salute people like Cecil Blows, Phillip Tobias, Pat van Vore, Irene Pretorius and numerous other stalwarts of non-racial sports during a very difficult time in our history. The memories that were created with very little funds from organisations like WPSSSU (SACOS) will stay with generations of us and we can tell our children and grand children about. To all those people who gave their time, effort and in some cases money to make these events happen – I salute you!!

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  • October 16, 2015 at 6:42 am
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    I served as an administrator at WPSSSU under Cecil Blows for 10 years, our office was on the top floor of the Wembley building in Athlone, surely the glory days of school athletics what a grounding we received from Cecil in the previous computer days having to cart a boot load of paperwork, I would like to acknowledge the late Freddie Britten from Belgravia High School as well as Donald Neumann another stalwart.

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  • October 16, 2015 at 6:40 am
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    This article brings back many good memories. I was a middle distance athlete at Gordon High School in Somerset West and I participated in these events from 1977 to 1980 at Athlone Stadium. The grass track was professionally prepared with 6 or 8 lanes. The toilets were spotlessly clean when we arrived there (and in working order). We went through the days programme without any delays because we were back in the Helderberg before 18h00. Only the best was good enough for the children of the non citizens! We also had our fair share of citizen Education in 1979 when Simba chips insulted the Organisers by sending 2 boxes of chips as their Sponsorship! We were asked to boycott their products at our institutions. I doff my hat to Mr C.Blows and his team. You did so much for us as pupils and athletes over so many years!

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  • October 16, 2015 at 4:17 am
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    I vividly recall Mr Blows as a lean running machine. He was such an inspiration to me during my time at Wittebome High School 1964- 1968. There were no fancy running shoes in those day just the old sneakers. Some of us even ran barefooted. I will be honoured to meet Cecil when I visit Cape Town (from Canada) in December 2015.

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  • October 16, 2015 at 3:07 am
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    Hi, I salute those administrators for a job well done. That was mass participation on big scale. Talent was evident. I ran at the Champ of Champs. Athlone staduim was packed to capacity. It brings back memories. I’m busy with an athletics club coaching primary and high school kids at Vygieskraal, I would like 2 people that will be interested to assist with coaching or being an administrator. You can contact me on 0712704971 or message me on the above email. Jonathan Blankenberg

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  • October 15, 2015 at 3:04 pm
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    Wow what a fantastic piece of writing, well done for bringing so many memories back, I remember those dark days when I was an Athlete for Alexander Sinton High… good days, I still believe that if the political situation was different, then our ‘Cape Flats’ schools would have had many SA athletes representing our country. Your article should be in every school that was part of the struggle, as a reminder of the sacrifices that our athletes had to go through.

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  • October 15, 2015 at 10:46 am
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    I am honoured to have been taught by Mr Cecil Blow back in 1982-1985 in Accountancy. Looking well, sir.
    Mr Harry Hendricks, mentioned in the article, later involved in swimming, WP Senior Schools and WCA Swimming Association, I salute you.

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  • October 15, 2015 at 6:07 am
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    I salute Cecil Blows and all associated with school athletics in the Western Cape and South Africa during the apartheid era. I was an under eight sprint champion in 1956 and can still clearly remember representing the Athlone District Primary Schools Sports Union at the Green Point Track. My athletics career then continued under the strict guidance of Dennis Mackay at Alexander Sinton, whom I salute as well.
    It was also always a pleasure meeting up with people like Cecil at SACOS meetings when I represented baseball at these meetings as an executive member of SABA and President of Western Province Baseball and Softball Union.
    My best wishes to all associated with athletics and sport in general in the past and now in South Africa. Keep up the good work.

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  • October 14, 2015 at 8:50 pm
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    I vividly recall my first year of teaching at Harold Cressy (1970) and was tasked as athletics convenor of the A section. Late Peter Meyer and I attended a meeting in Richard Rive’s flat in Rosmead Avenue. The knowledgeable Cecil Blows was present and took me through the convening processs – Thanks Cecil, you were a tremendous mentor and God bless!

    Reply

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