Flamboyant Schaffers had the world at his feet

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BY CLEMENT DU PLESSIS

“I WANT to do this.”

This was all an eight-year-old schoolboy told his Physical Education Teacher when he was in Sub B at Heathfield Primary School in 1979.

Graham Schaffers had seen a few boys do the Dick Fosbury Flop on the tarmac of the school’s playground and also in the area where Phys Ed classes were held.

“I was standing on the tarmac watching the boys do high jump when I told my Physical Education teacher, Mr Lionel White, I would like to do that,” said Schaffers referring to the high jump event.

Graham Schaffers
Graham Schaffers is seen jumping at St Owens.

Schaffers remembers the metal crossbar and the noise it made when it landed on the tarmac.

“I didn’t like the noise of the bar landing on the tarmac, to me high jump meant going over the crossbar, besides I had no intention, at the time, of landing on the metal crossbar, you could hurt yourself,” said Schaffers who already was showing signs of a super confident athlete.

He would run into trouble with athletics officials in later years with this type of personality, as the officials tried to impose their will on him. Needless to say, Schaffers had the last say with senior men’s record of 2,15m under the banner of the South African Amateur Athletics Board.

Dick Fosbury Flop vs. scissors style jump

As a youngster at Heathfield, Schaffers recalls the pieces of foam in a net that constituted a landing mat or high jump mat in those days.

“Before jumping you had to make sure that the foam was packed together or else one could fall through and land on the sand.”

Schaffers Schaffers
Graham Schaffers sets the SAAAB junior men’s record of 2,07m.

He was at Heathfield for one year before moving on to St Augustines Primary in Wynberg. It was here under the guidance of Jamie Poole that the bedrock of Schaffers’s high jump achievements was laid.

The rangy Schaffers immediately latched on to the Dick Fosbury Flop, a technique that offers the jumper a higher height than the antiquated scissors style.

In no time he gained Western Province Primary School colours and participated in his first South African Primary Schools Sports Association Track and Field meeting at the Vygieskraal Stadium in the early 1980s.

He spent one year at Wittebome High School near Wynberg, Cape Town, before moving on to St Owens High School in Retreat, Cape Town. St Owen’s has subsequently closed down as a school.

His high jump career continued to blossom at high school level.

Boys open record

He continued to set records in the high jump event at Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union level. Some of his records were broken, but his boys’ open record of 2,07m stood until the books closed in 1994. Schaffers was also, of course, a South African Senior Schools Sports Association (SASSSA) champion.

The manner in which he cleared 2,07m at the WPSSSU inter-schools meeting in 1989 was phenomenal.  After battling with heights of 2,04m and 2,05m at previous athletics meetings, he duly cleared 2,07m at a sectional meeting at the Athlone Stadium.

Schaffers Schaffers
Graham Schaffers, in Western Province colours, takes time out from the athletics meeting.

This was the type of confidence Schaffers had as a high jumper, an extrovert who would overwhelm his rivals.

His rise in becoming the junior men’s champion as well as the senior men’s champion came as no surprise.

As a member of the Spartans Amateur Athletics club, he participated in the Andrewena Series and at the University of the Western Cape’s student athletics meetings. The UWC venue is probably the best venue for athletics when the wind stays away.

At the South African Amateur Athletics Board’s Prestige Track and Field meeting in Worcester, South Africa in 1989, Schaffers set a new junior men’s record of 2,07m, beating the two-year-old mark of Rowan Spies of the South Western Districts.

Smooth transition from junior to senior

The venue for the prestige meeting was Esselen Park in Worcester, South Africa. On the day Schaffers, like many other athletes, had to contend with a soggy field which was not conducive to high jumping.

The year 1989 was his last year as a junior men’s athlete.

Graham Schaffers
Graham Schaffers sets the SA senior men’s record of 2,15m.

Many athletics pundits were looking at the senior athletes of Daniel Orange, Andrew September, Julian Williams, Alvino Isaacs and Graham February to step up and break Orange’s SAAAB record of 2,10m during the 1990 track and field season. Schaffers was not in the reckoning.

Why?

Few juniors made an impression in their first season in senior men’s athletics. Schaffers, though, was the exception! Schaffers took on Orange and summarily beat him with a height of 2,05m in an Andrewena Series athletics meeting at the Vygieskraal Stadium in 1990.  In some of the other club meetings, he easily cleared 2,07m and 2,08m respectively. At the SAAAB Prestige Track and Field meeting at the Galvandale Track in Port Elizabeth in 1990, Schaffers beat Orange to the title.

New SAAAB senior men’s record

Williams and February were talking up the record of 2,10m held by Orange in an interview in South newspapers in 1990. Meanwhile, the youngster Schaffers had every intention of being the best at senior level – after all he had beaten the best on several occasions in 1990.  He systematically and incrementally chipped away at his senior rivals. Some jumpers pitched for competition and others jumped the other way hoping to bide their time for a win. All the time, Schaffers was jumping and jumping higher than ever before.

In 1990, at the start of the 1990-1991 season, Schaffers broke Orange’s record at the first athletics meeting of the new season at the UWC Track.

Graham Schaffers
The style that made Graham Schaffers the champion at primary school through to national senior men’s level.

He cleared 2,12m on a windless day at a great athletics venue.  Second place (1,95m) went to another fine jumper in February.

Orange did not participate in this meeting.

But by then Schaffers had Orange’s number.

Two weeks later at a floodlit meeting at UWC, Schaffers improved the 2,12m record to 2,15m.  On the night he cleared 2,10m and 2,15m for a new SAAAB senior men’s record.

Schaffers has achieved all of these milestones without winter and proper training. His curt answer was that “I did not train”.

South African Amateur Athletics Union

He regarded Clyde van Graan, Williams and Isaacs as his main rivals.

“There was a lot of talent around on the brink of going to Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Barcelona could not have been the Olympics for South Africa at the time as there wasn’t sufficient time to prepare for international meetings.  The selection process at the time, too, was bizarre.  Perhaps, 1996 would have been a better option in getting all of the athletes prepared for international competition,” said Schaffers.

Graham Schaffers
Graham Schaffers relaxes with his Western Province team mates on the high jump mats.

In seeking better training opportunities, he crossed over to the South African Amateur Athletics Union (SAAAU) on the brink of unity in 1992 where he held the Western Province record of 2,18m.

His high jump hero was Javier Sotomayor of Cuba, the world record-holder and locally Gavin Lendis impressed him.

*A great many athletes crossed over to the SAAAU just prior to unity and somehow the media called them defectors. It seemed that the “defectors” were not willing to work with South African Council on Sport or the National Sports Congress (the ANC-aligned sports wing) and deemed the SAAAU the best opportunity because of their facilities and remuneration benefits that came along with being a top athlete at the SAAAU. But, of course, both organisations, the SAAAB and the SAAAU, had been usurped by the National Sports Congress who sort international participation in 1992. The NCS’s decision to participate internationally did not help black sport in the long run (20+ years).  Today, 2015, there is still haggling over sports transformation from white to black.

Graham Schaffers
Graham Schaffers sets a new Western Province high jump record of 2,18m during ‘unity’.

Herewith an extract from an article that appeared in the South newspaper, April 4 to 10, 1991:

The South African Amateur Athletics Congress (Saaacon) has rejected possible participation by athletes in the Tokyo World Championships and the Barcelona Olympics.

President Henry Cloete made this clear at unity talks between Saaacon and the South African Amateur Athletics Union in Cape Town last month.

Saaacon has demanded that athletics coaching programmes should first be accessible to every sportsperson on an equal basis before there could be talks of merit selection for international participation.

Cloete said that his organisation has had no part in any attempt to get South Africa into the international arena.

  • Schaffers was also a WP volleyball player at school and club level. He played for Hurricanes (defunct) and then Retreat Volleyball Club.

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