HERMAN Gibbs’ battle with a serious infection of the bones (osteomyelitis) as a nine-year-old belies the fact that he was the first sprinter of the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (WPSSSU) to run the 200m in under 22 seconds in 1971.
The young Gibbs collapsed, but remained conscious, while on his way home from the Mowbray Methodist Primary School in Cape Town and had to crawl the last 50 metres to the house. (The school was situated where the Mowbray Bus Terminus is today.)
At the time, he was in Standard 2 and his class teacher was Ms Alexander, the sister of Neville Alexander, a former revolutionary who spent 10 years on Robben Island as a fellow-prisoner of Nelson Mandela.
Gibbs had no idea what was wrong with him.
Doctors at Red Cross Hospital – down the road from his home – diagnosed the illness and said to his parents that playing sport in the future was out of the question.
Little did the doctors know that Herman R Gibbs would become the first sprinter to crack the 22-second barrier in the 200m within the fold of the South African Senior Schools Sports Association (SASSSA) in 1971. He would also sprint to a time of 10,5 seconds in the 100m for another record during the same year.
Both achievements are Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union records (WPSSSU), a union affiliated to SASSSA.
The rise to the pinnacle of athletics success did not come easy.
“I remember crawling home and ending up in a hospital where I was put in plaster of paris cast from my foot to my chest,” says Gibbs.
“I was immobilised for seven months after which I had to learn to walk and eat all over again. During my immobilisation, I was fed liquids. I still bear the 10-inch scars on my legs today,” says Gibbs.
His mother, Josie née Hermans (whose brother was the famous baseballer Donny Hermans), did not like the idea of the young and vulnerable Herman playing sport, but his maternal grandmother (Ma Katie) supported him to the hilt.
“My grandmother made me a pair of shorts from the white linen of the ironing board. We used to call it a ‘tabalbroek’ – a colloquial word for oversized, inflated shorts. It attracted attention when I was the school’s flag-bearer for the march past at Green Point Track in 1961,” says Gibbs.
Four different schools
Gibbs lived a bit of a nomadic life as a pupil.
Raised in Mowbray until the age of the 13, his parents, together with his brother Jack, had to leave Mowbray because of the dreaded Group Areas Act.
He attended the Mowbray Methodist Primary School from 1957-1960. He then went to school at the Salt River Methodist Primary School from 1961-1963.
“At Salt River Methodist Primary School, Judge Siraj Desai, Beryl Manuel, the older sister of Trevor Manuel, and I were in one class. Trevor was there, too, but in a lower standard as he is younger,” says Gibbs.
He furthered his schooling at Wesley Training College from 1965-1967.
When he was in Std 8 (grade 10), Gibbs had to decide whether to become a tradesman (as so many had become at the time) or a schoolteacher.
“With a junior certificate (Std 8), you could become a tradesman; anything from a plumber to an electrician. I chose to complete my schooling,” says Gibbs.
Little athletics activity
At the various schools he attended, there was no or very little athletics activity.
“There were no extra-mural activities at Wesley,” he says.
“The teachers at these schools were not big on athletics and showed very little interest in the sport. It is only when I got to Alexander Sinton in 1968 (Std 9) that I saw how big athletics at the school was. Sinton was remarkably different. It was incredible, I was never exposed to athletics on such a scale,” recalls Gibbs.
“I had a nephew (John Gibbs, aka Toolie) who had attended Alexander Sinton previously. He said I should come to Sinton to complete my schooling; Std 9 and 10,” says Gibbs.
Gibbs credits Clarrie Bruce (a famous wrestler) for encouraging him to participate in athletics while at Salt River Methodist.
“He was my first trainer, he knew about fitness, but not necessarily athletics,” say Gibbs.
Concoction of eggs and milk
Gibbs remembers how Bruce used to place bets on his races.
He also provided a concoction of eggs and milk to the young Gibbs.
“He said it would make me run faster,” says Gibbs.
For long periods of his sporting career, Gibbs had to hide the fact that he was playing sport from his mother. She was too afraid that her young son might injure himself following the big operation he had in primary school.
As an under-17 Gibbs only participated in the 100 yards and 100m while at Sinton. Here, he would strike up a rivalry with Ivan Masters – the short, solidly-built sprinter who excelled in any race from 100m to 400m.
“Masters beat me in the 100m at inter-house,” says Gibbs who was in Wesley (yellow house).
Catalyst for his athletics success
He says Sinton was the catalyst for his athletics success and the huge interest shown in the sport by the teachers there at the time.
“Khalid Desai would encourage me to beat Masters, although he was in Masters’ house,” recalls Gibbs.
Desai was in Iona.
Gibbs says further that Norman Appolis, too, though from another house, encouraged him to do better in the 100m.
“I think they felt sorry for me, because I was travelling from Bonteheuwel; or they had the bigger picture in mind – the A Section inter-schools meeting,” he says.
At the time there were only three sections; A, B, and C, and Sinton had won the A Section six times with further victories in 1968 and 1969.
At the A Section, he would run into another formidable opponent. The tall Alex Abercrombie of Harold Cressy was an outstanding sprinter, 800m runner and high jumper. Abercrombie held the Western Province Senior Schools’ high jump record and junior sprint records.
Through the age groups, he and Masters dominated until the arrival of Gibbs.
At the A Section in 1968, Masters and Abercrombie were to compete in heat one of the boys under 17 100 yards. 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 and the time given as 10,4 seconds after the two athletes bumped into each other on the finish line.
“In the 100 yards final, Alex was drawn in lane 1, Masters in 2 and I was in lane six next to the rail on the grandstand side,” recalls Gibbs.
Starter George Dempers was told to be especially alert for false starts in this 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,” explains Gibbs.
This was not the end of it.
Champ of champs
The shorter, compact and muscular-built Masters braced himself for the Champion of Champions meeting at Green Point Track, only the fourth championships of its kind at the time. The first champ of champs event was held in 1964.
Masters cleaned up the field in the 100 yards from Gibbs and Abercrombie. Masters also clinched the 220 yards, a race Gibbs did not run.
Gibbs’ presence had thrown a spanner in the works but he had to challenge for a place in the WP team that would compete in Durban later that season.
The WPSSSU selectors were concerned that Gibbs was a 100 yards specialist and felt they should be given another chance. A race off was the answer at Hewat Training College’s ash track.
“It was only the one race at Hewat, but you had to see the big crowd who had come to watch the one race. Just that one race,” recalls Gibbs.
Gibbs bounced back and won the race, Masters second and Abercrombie third. The versatile Abercrombie stayed in the WPSSSU team because he could run and feature in the 220 yards and could high jump, too. Gibbs did not run the 220 yards at that stage.
At the inter-provincial in Durban in 1968, Gibbs won the boys under 17 100 metres in a time of 11 seconds flat, which was a record at the time. The metric system was implemented at the Durban inter-provincial.
“After the inter-provincial (SASSSA champs), they never beat me again,” says Gibbs.
Abercrombie won the 200m. Masters came second in both races. Abercrombie also won the boys under 17 high jump event.
In 1969, his matric year, he came up against the red-hot Kenny Roman who was already at Hewat. Roman stayed at Hewat for the solitary year.
“Kenny was an exceptional talent, and certainly the standard bearer for a sprinter in my time,” says Gibbs.
Modest, from a man who broke several of Roman’s school sprint records.
Sprinters Jackie Swanepoel, Sedick Kalam, Henry Davids, Gibbs and Lawrence Jacobs all featured in the record books of the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union in 1969 and 1970. In some cases as joint-record holders with records run (100m and 200m) at different sectional meetings and different years (1968 and 1969).
The metric system came into operation in 1969. (100 yards to 100 metres)
By the summer of 1969/1970, Gibbs was encouraged by former athletes Gus Jacobs (by now a lecturer at Hewat) and Norman Stoffberg (a trained teacher), whom he met at the New Year’s cricket test at Newlands, to attend Hewat Training College, where they were heading up the Physical Education Department.
In the form of his life
While at Hewat, as a student teacher, Gibbs also became the coach to the Western Province Primary Schools team in 1971, the “year Sam Ramsamy was the coach of the Natal team”.
Gibbs had a terrific season in 1971 when he broke the WPSSSU boys open 200m record three times (22,1 ,22,3 and 21,8 seconds).
He held the old record of 22,6 seconds jointly with Roman set in 1968.
The times of 22,1 secs and 22,3 secs he set at the A-Section in the heats and final. At the Saturday’s Champion of Champions, he became the first athlete in the fold of WPSSSU and SASSSA to run the 200m under 22 seconds when he was timed at 21.8 secs.
At the same A-Section meeting on the Wednesday, Gibbs clocked 10,5 seconds in the 100m, beating Roman’s record of 10,9 seconds by 0,4 seconds. He was in the form of his life.
Later on, there were some memorable duels with George Montanus, the one beating the other, and Gareth Mclean of the Eastern Province. Mclean held the college and SA Board 200m record of 21,3 seconds set in 1974. Mclean was coached by the highly-respected Eddie May.
Multi-racial track meeting
After 1971, Gibbs’ interest in the sport waned with his teaching career taking priority.
However, there was one more attraction. In 1971, Trust Bank invited Gibbs to South Africa’s first-ever multiracial track meeting as a club runner to which the Western Province and Cycling president Syd B Lotter said ”no”. Lotter added: “You can’t even think about it.”
According to the Cape Herald, in 1972, Gibbs called it quits, citing the lack of time for training as a reason.
He was already a young school teacher at Bridgetown High School. In 1972, his first year at Bridgetown, he coached the school to a second place in the A Section, when Sinton (his old school) won by one point!
Gibbs also had an interest in rugby. He played first team rugby for Hewat in the company of some players who went on to represent the South African Rugby Union.
There is no guessing which position he played.