By CLEMENT DU PLESSIS
WOULD they have been world class? This is often the discussions in athletics circles about the athletes who competed under the disbanded South African Amateur Athletic and Cycling Union (later SAAAB) who would have been world class if they had been given the opportunity to compete internationally.
Names such as Cecil Blows, Sam de Wet and Kenny Roman crop up regularly in conversations as athletes who would have performed well on the world stage if it were not for apartheid. There were of course, in later years, many more athletes who had the talent to compete internationally.
When I interviewed the likes of De Wet, Willie Londt, Blows and John Webb, the name Leslie Titus came up as the best miler of the 1950s and 1960s.
He was also the best in his disciplines at the time in the mile to six-mile track races.
He was a rangy athlete and had lungs and stamina that would easily outlast his opponents.
Their performances had been so captivating at senior men’s level that Springboks “Poena” Malan, at the time the 120-yard hurdles record holder, and Johnny Luxon, the 220-yard sprinter, who were down on holiday from Pretoria in 1960 said, they “were greatly impressed by the two milers”.
The two milers were Leslie Titus of South Peninsula and Sam de Wet of Elsie’s River.
Malan and Luxon’s comments follow a report by an athletics statistician in the Cape Times, January 1960 (by all accounts Harry Beinart).
The report says that Titus had won the mile on the track in four minutes and 27,5 seconds in beating another great and the successor to Titus, Sam de Wet into second place.
“The outstanding performance on the first day of the S.A. Coloured Athletic and Cycling Championships at the Green Point Stadium yesterday was undoubtedly that of Leslie Titus in the one mile.
“In spite of the strong wind he clocked the good time of 4 min. 27.5 sec.
“On this display, he looks to be on a par with most W.P. milers at present, except Willie Olivier who should prove too strong for him at the finish.”
Olivier and Titus never competed against each other because the policy of apartheid had been put in place already since 1948 by the white National Party government under Prime Minister Danie Malan. (Apartheid – the segregation of whites from blacks in every aspect of South African life from 1948-1994)
On a good day Titus and De Wet would run a mile far faster than 4 mins and 27 seconds. De Wet’s scrapbook points to times of four minutes 10 seconds and four minutes 12 seconds for the mile on a cinder track often described in newspaper reports as being “loose with big stones”.
No other athlete under the former SAAAB has run remotely close to these times in subsequent years on the track.
To run a sub-four minute mile an athlete has to run the 1500m in 3 minutes 40 seconds, and must be capable to run the last lap of the mile race in under 60 seconds.
One former SAAAB athlete who had the potential was Hennie Moses of Ceres (born in Montagu). Moses has a best time of 3 minutes and 47,1 seconds in the 1500m set in 1983 – this does not discount any other former middle distances runners who, with proper training and a focus, would surely have gone under four minutes.
Titus too, who although he was fit, never focussed on the mile or three-mile races. Athletes mostly competed in all of the distance races on the same day from half mile to three-mile races, or from mile to three mile and six-mile races.
Titus competed in all of these races and, at the height of his career, was the best, although De Wet had beaten Titus for the first time in 1957. The torch had been passed on.
In 1964, the terrific junior miler of the 1950s, John Webb, upset Titus in the mile at Green Point Track (The Golden City Post Newspaper, 22 March 1964).
Interviewing De Wet and Webb coupled by the newspaper reports of Beinart, Titus was a special talent as early as his school days.
South Peninsula High School
“Boeta (Titus) was the best over the mile. He seldom got beaten over the mile. He was a tall and a fluent runner,” remembers Webb, who himself became a champion miler at junior and senior level.
Titus attended the Blouvlei Dutch Reformed School Church in Retreat, and furthered his primary schooling at Central Primary in Southfield.
“South Peninsula High School opened its doors of learning in 1950 with two classrooms,” says his wife Dawn Titus who lives in Retreat, Cape Town.
“Leslie was one of the first students, and one of the finest athletes at SP,” she adds.
Her husband died tragically in December 1989.
While at SP, Titus competed in the mile for Western Province schools. This was not yet the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (WPSSSU) as pupils and teachers remember the WPSSSU.
Titus had competed under the South African Schools Sports Board which included the primary and high schools.
In the 1954 article which appeared in the Diamond Fields Advertiser, there is a result with Titus’ name in the under 18 age group (!) of a meeting organised by the South African Schools Sports Board. Not in the boys open or boys under 19 as had become the norm in later years.
Other age groups which appear in the newspaper clipping are boys and girls under 12, and, strikingly girls under 16. Since the inception of the new WPSSSU in 1960, there had been no girls under 16 age group until 1990 when the age group had been introduced.
De Beers Stadium
The South African Schools Sports Board athletics meeting in 1954 was the first inter-provincial triangular meeting of Coloured schools – WP, Transvaal and the Northern Cape – at the De Beers Stadium in Kimberley.
The athletics meeting, according to the Diamond Fields Advertiser, was held on Van Riebeeck Day (6 April 1954).
So, Titus was a provincial school’s athlete at the start of track and field athletics under the new formation of the South African Schools Sports Board (see article) in September 1953 (implemented in 1954).
He was a member of the Trafalgar Amateur Athletics club in District Six.
Crestway High School
As a schoolboy, Titus trained on the sand dunes where Crestway High School in Retreat stands today.
“Leslie trained and worked out on his own. He loved to do step-ups on a bench. He also used an elastic rubber band to strengthen his arms and upper body. As he grew older he chopped wood and used to draw the wood on a wagon for delivery in Retreat. He used to draw the wagon from 11th Avenue to Blue Route,” remembers his wife Dawn, 77, a retired schoolteacher.
After completing school, Titus was a messenger at the city council before graduating to being a traffic cop.
‘He was perfect’
“As a messenger, he was always running from building to building, I supposed, in this way, Leslie also kept himself fit. He didn’t really follow a diet by today’s standards, but he was fond of mielies and beans before his race the next day,” she recalls.
“In the morning, he had a few raw eggs with honey, and on hot days during competition, he loved to eat watermelon,” she says.
His wife, who did not remarry, has fond memories of him.
“There’s only one Leslie, he was perfect,” she says, smiling from ear to ear.
He was born in 1936 and would have been 80 years old this year (6 August 2016).
In honouring his memory, his wife, who invited some close friends, celebrated his life on his 80th birthday.