Coach Cameron brought out the best in his athletes

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THEY do the all the hard work, preparing their athletes at no costs, they double-up as officials and sometimes as guardians, they never hog the headlines or get recognised or acknowledged for their contribution to the community – they are just in the background.

At best, the COACH might receive a “thank you”.

During the sporting isolation between 1970 and 1992 in South Africa, several coaches stepped forward to raise the profile of community athletics.

Basil Cameron
Coach Basil Cameron, left, with former athletes Christy Davids and Sharon Alexander (Siljeur).

Many more had been coaches before 1970, with many of them being retired athletes.

In 1973, a retired cross country athlete by the name of Basil Cameron picked up the coaching baton while still a member of the Athlone Amateur Athletics Club.

The club had been based at 99 Belgravia Road, Belgravia Estate, Athlone at the home of the Manuels, a sporting family.

Sauls and Burricks

“Club meetings were held in the garage of the Manuels. All of the siblings were sprinters. Later, they also held the football meetings of the Aurora Football Club there,” says Cameron, 71.

Cameron joined the club in 1971. As an athlete he competed against Eddie Burricks, Sydney Sauls, John Korasie and another athlete he only remembers by his surname Korkee.  He rates Sauls as a top distance runner at the time and “the first athlete to have won the Genadendal to Caledon road race”.  Sauls was also the local scribe for the sport.

Christy Davids
Christy Davids.

In 1973, Cameron had a fine crop of athletes at the club which he had coached, including sprinters Jackie Swanepoel, Malcolm Neuman, George Montanus, distance runners Wilson Claasen and Robert Jansen.

“Malcolm (Neuman) was known as ‘helicopter’ because of his high knee lift and Claasen was a talent, but also a character,” says Cameron.

He had worked with these athletes at Clover Crescent in Athlone and did track work at the cinder track of the Hewat Training College in Crawford.

Danie Arendse

Most of his athletes earned Western Province colours and broke WP and South African records.

Cameron remembers Danie Arendse being attached to the club and the man who initially helped him with the coaching of athletes.

But how did Cameron improve his coaching methods?

“Well, I picked up coaching tips from other coaches at the time. Danie Arendse was one of the coaches who helped me tremendously. But I really took a great leap forward in coaching when I read the book ‘No Bugles No Drums’ by Peter Snell and Garth Gilmour,” says Cameron.

Snell was coached by Arthur Lydiard.

Lydiard, a former New Zealand athlete and coach, is also famous for taking compatriot Peter Snell to the pinnacle of the sport, winning the men’s 800m at the Rome (1960) and Tokyo Olympic Games (1964). Snell also won the 1500m in Tokyo.

Gavin Benjamin
Gavin Benjamin leads the field of middle-distance athletes, including Christy Davids, Norman Joseph and Wilfred Daniels.

Armed with this book knowledge, Cameron could apply this to his ever growing pool of athletes.  He had Norman Joseph, Christy Davids and Gavin Benjamin under his wing – all superb middle distance runners.  Of the older athletes, Claasen, the former SA senior men’s 800m champion and record holder was still at the club.

Wilson Claasen 

“Wilson (Claasen) gave me the greatest satisfaction, an athlete who had attended the Porter Reformatory School. He was a short athlete but he had powerful legs. He was extremely fit. He easily outran his competitors,” says Cameron.

Claasen was a character – somewhat out of the ordinary. He succeeded Robin April as the 800m champion.

Stellenbosch’s Wilfred Daniels changed the face of 800m athletics when he clocked 1 minute and 51.9 seconds on the tartan track of Green Point Stadium in 1975. Daniels was the supreme champion athlete during this period.

Wilson Claasen
Wilson Claasen was a phenomenal 800m talent.

Another of Cameron’s athlete’s Benjamin won the senior men’s 800m title from Daniels in 1977 and in 1979 Claasen, an athlete of the late 1960’s and the whole of the 1970’s decade bounced back in Durban in 1979 to win the senior men’s 800m title in a scintillating time of 1 minute 52.8 seconds on the cinder track of Curries Fountain.

Gavin Benjamin

“It was the year Wilson (Claasen) stole a car in Paarl to drive to the SA meeting in Durban with some of his friends in the car. He drove back down and parked the car where he had stolen it from in Paarl and was arrested,” recalls Cameron.

Christy Davids and Gavin Benjamin were another two of Cameron’s finest middle distance athletes.

He connected with Benjamin in their neighbourhood of Belgravia Estate. Benjamin is a former SA senior schools sprint champion (1968). After nearly a decade, Benjamin returned to the track as an 800m athlete. He and Davids were bosom buddies during their athletics days. While at Spes Bona High, they gained WPSSSU colours.

“I met Christy Davids at a cross country event at Wetton Circle where he had asked me to coach him.  His best distance was the 1500m, but he was not too bad over 800m. He excelled in cross country events and road races,” says Cameron.

Arthur Lydiard
Arthur Lydiard.

Davids who lives in America praised his parents and his brother Willie for encouraging him to be the best he could be.

“Basil probably had as much influence on my foray into athletics as my parents and brothers, especially Willie.

“I was introduced to Basil Cameron through Sidney Sauls.  Sidney had just won the Caledon to Genadendal Marathon and was training for a 10km. This road race, which started at Wetton Circle and many others, were arranged by Basil.

Working together

“Edgar Cloete was one of the many athletes who benefitted from these races.

“He also bought the trophies and submitted the results to the newspaper.  All this without asking for or receiving any recognition.  At the time, 1972/73, there were no cross country or even one or two official races during the off-season.

“We started working together immediately; there was no formal arrangement. I showed up and Basil coached.  For a long time, I was the only athlete coached by Basil because I was the only one arrogant enough to show up for his punishing workouts.

“We took the bus to Mowbray Terminus and from there we walked to Rhodes Memorial to train.  Sometimes, the fog was so thick that visibility was less than 100m.  Basil had me doing hill work at Rhodes long before it became popular.

George Montanus.
George Montanus.

“What many people don’t know is that prior to us working out at Hewat Training College, Basil had gone to the Department of Coloured Affairs in Wynberg to get permission to use the track.  They refused, so my track sessions at Hewat Training College started with the two of us crawling through the fence.  At times the session would end early because the grounds keeper had us leave.

“I had gone through the 1974 Track Season confident that I could win every race I entered because Basil made sure I was prepared.  Basil oversaw every aspect of my race, from my warm-up run, to stretches, right up to me going to the starting line.

One of the best coaches

“I can’t recall Basil ever being named in any of the newspaper articles leading up to, or after any race. And he never said a word nor showed any emotion about it.  He coached his athletes and stood back when it was time for us to compete.

“Looking back, the most candid thing I can say is, Basil Cameron was one of the best coaches of that era. He was never considered for the position of being a Western Province Team Coach.  However, the number of athletes he coached who gained Western Province colours spoke volumes for his ability and dedication.

“He moulded me and put up with my antics. I can never thank Uncle B enough,” lauded Davids who was a sensation in the 1500m. He held the South African Amateur Athletics Board junior men’s 1500m record of 3 minutes and 54.9 seconds in 1975.

Jackie Swanepoel
Jackie Swanepoel.

By the 1980’s many of Cameron’s athletes either retired or emigrated.

He retreated to Mitchell’s Plain where he again saw first-hand the brutality of state oppression at the hands of the police and riot police.

He recorded the brutality of the apartheid police in Mitchell’s Plain and couriered the information, at times personally, to anti-apartheid organisations in England and America.

Political refugee

He himself was apprehended at the airport, only to tell the police that the “smart wrappings are birthday gifts”.

“The ‘gifts’ were video recordings of the unrest that played out in the 1980s,” he says.

In 1986, he left South Africa as a political refugee and settled in upstate New York in Ithaca where “I became the head coach of the Finger Lakes Runners Club in 1988”.

Cameron has since returned to South Africa.

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