‘Mark, the 400’, digs into coaching and expertise

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HAVING interviewed many of the unsung heroes of our time in athletics, I have come across complex athletes who had offered many different reasons as to why the times, distances and heights were not of a white South African, African (as in athletes on the continent), or even of a world standard.

This puzzled and perturbed the likes of John September, and more lately, the highly talented Mark Jacobs (pictured centre on the main photograph, left is Edwin Roems and Jantjie Marthinus).

Mark Jacobs
Mark Jacobs crosses the line to win his second SAAAB senior men’s 400m title in 1984.

“The expertise around preparation for competition was not of a standard that could deliver the sort of times, distances, and heights that we were capable of. And no one is to blame for that.  We were isolated, we had a lack of resources and the lack of international ideas,” said Jacobs, a PhD graduate in Mathematics Education.

Phillip Tobias

“I was always quite ashamed of my times even though I had been the SAAAB 400m champion in 1980 and held the 400m record in 1983 (48,6 seconds).

“When I say I was ashamed, I wasn’t ashamed of us as a movement. I was proud of Sacos (the South African Council on Sport). My politics started with Sacos, and not with any political party. Sacos conscientised me while I was at Oaklands High School (1973-1977) in Racecourse Road, Landsdowne.  Philip Tobias, our Physics teacher, talked his politics during our physics lessons,” explained Jacobs, who had been dubbed ‘Mark, the 400’ and who was the champion in 1984 when he won in a time of 48,7 seconds.

Sacos, an anti-apartheid sports body, was opposed to international sports under the legislated apartheid system between 1948 and 1992. (apartheid was the separation of whites from black people, coloureds and Indians in every facet of life in South Africa).

Mark Jacobs
Mark Jacobs, left, won a thrilling race against Nazeem Smith and Jantjie Marthinus in March 1985.

Tobias was the president of the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union, an affiliate of Sacos and member of the Unity Movement, an organization that advocated, in the main, a policy of non-collaboration with the apartheid government.

Principles of Sacos  

The WPSSSU provided high school athletics to mainly coloured schools but also a grouping of the Bantu Education Department schools which reflected the demographic of the province.

“Departing from the principles of Sacos never occurred to me. I was, however, conscious of my times that were not a match to the times on the other side.

Clear evidence

“In hindsight, we could see that some of our athletes who had gone to compete on the “other side” did well within a season, so that is clear evidence that we had the talent. Freddie Williams and Jantjie Marthinus come to mind. And there were many others who did well during sports unity,” he continued.

Mark Jacobs
Mark Jacobs on his way to winning the senior men’s 400m in record time.

Jacobs said, “The key to their success was the training, coaching, and incentives.”

Marthinus of UWC, Jacobs of Trafalgar and Nazeem Smith of Hewat were the key runners in the senior men’s 400m. Smith was the man to beat in the 400m, as he came onto the senior men’s scene with a bang in 1984, eclipsing the SAAAB 400m record repeatedly.

Rich potential

Many who had seen Jacobs as an athlete believe he did not fulfill his rich potential in the 400m, and some might even argue in the 800m too.

Jacobs gave the athletics fraternity a glimpse of what he could achieve.

In March 1985, he beat Smith and Marthinus in the senior men’s 400m at the Vygieskraal Stadium.

“It was a fluke”

“I regarded the win as a fluke. I ran the heat and came second. I went home to Hanover Park after that and wasn’t going to come back but I did. One of them was in an inside lane behind me and went past me on the first bend. The other one was out in front. By the time we got to the last bend (the last 130m of the race), I was sitting behind them both and they were by then quite close together. I made a strong push and passed between them. I told myself just to hold on. It was a fluke. I didn’t have the confidence before the race.  The win was my second highlight, the other being the record in 1983,” he said.

The race was also the last between Smith, Marthinus and Jacobs.

On 21 March 1985 police opened fire on mourners in Langa, Uitenhage, who had marched to a funeral in KwaNobuhle. At least 20 people had been killed with the media dubbing the atrocity as the Langa shootings.


This event was seminal in Jacobs’ decision not to participate in athletics for the remainder of the season in solidarity with the marchers and with those who died there.

Mark Jacobs
Jantjie Marthinus wins a closely-fought senior men’s 400m race against Mark Jacobs in Durban in 1983.

“In 1986, we had the state of emergency,” he recalls.

In the interim, he equipped himself as a SAAAB coach and presented coaching courses. Marthinus’s performances also formed part of his coaching lectures.

Given up his place

Jacobs had given up his place in the 1985 Western Province team who travelled to the SAAAB Track and Field meeting in Port Elizabeth, a coastal city near Uitenhage and only returned to athletics in 1988 at the age of 29.

By then Clint Cloete of Boland, also a former SA schools 400m champion and record holder, was the man to beat in the 400m.

Jacobs said jokingly: “I remember Nazeem (Smith) saying, ‘hey, can’t you beat that guy?”

Road races

He never participated in the 400m again after 1988, instead, embarking on a number of road races, including the Two Oceans Marathon during the 1990s and 2000s.

He regarded Smith of Hewat as the real champion in the 400m race.  Jacobs believed the training at Hewat under Physical Education lecturer Andy Daniels was a “different package” to the rest of the Western Province athletes.

Mark Jacobs
Mark Jacobs of Western Province has the better of Jantjie Marthinus of Boland in the 400m at the Vygieskraal stadium.

Said Jacobs: “This guy is a real champion, a sprinter who could run the 400m. I jumped a bit when he came to the club scene. I wouldn’t say I was going down, but I wasn’t making progress. I thought here at last is a real champion. But it also shows something of my own sense of self-worth and esteem. I said to myself, if this guy is going to move up to the 400m, he would simply expose me in the 400m.  I was never a name sprinter, I wasn’t top class.  I never ran the quick times of a sprinter and having never done that I limited myself, even though two 23 seconds would give you 46 seconds. He had the talent and speed to run faster 400m times than just the 47.1 seconds he set as a record.”

Nazeem Smith

Smith, who lives in Auckland, New Zealand, said: “Mark was a great competitor. I liked his honesty in competition. It is a pity we didn’t run more often against each other.”

Mark Jacobs
In spite of slowing down during the last 50m, Mark Jacobs still had the 400m record in the bag in Paarl in 1983.

Marthinus, who was the SAAAB senior men’s 400m champion in 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1985 said: “Mark was one of those outstanding, talented athletes who sacrificed his athletic talents to bring about a democratic dispensation in South Africa. I was always aware of the depth of his desire to make a change. He was a man of few words. I could see the quality of his thinking and academic ability, as well as the potential he had back then, to be able to achieve great heights in his chosen field of study. As an athlete back then, he could have run much faster in the 400m and the 800 metres. He is truly an unsung hero.”

District Six

Jacobs grew up in Eckard Street, District Six, one block away from the Avalon Cinema, until about age 12-13.

He also played soccer, as a striker, which was his first love.  He later played in the midfield.

When the metric system was introduced (1968) from pints to litres (as in a bottle of one litre cooldrink), “the chaps in my neighbourhood in District Six formed a club by the name of Litres Football Club. I was a junior member of the club”, says Jacobs laughing.

In 1978, having started his university studies, he broke his right leg in a football match just before the exams and never played club football again until his 40’s, when he returned to play for Wynberg-St John’s.

Mark Jacobs
Mark Jacobs’ diploma for winning the SAAAB senior men’s 400m in 1984.

“After my primary schooling at St Marks, District Six, in 1972 our family moved to Hanover Park because of the Group Areas Act.

“At the time Hanover Park was raw (underdeveloped). My mother decided to go and look for a high school for me outside the area.  She (went to) tried at Belgravia, Alexander Sinton until she got a place for me at Oaklands High School,” recalls Jacobs.

Difficult combination

At school, Jacobs ran the 200m and 400m, a difficult combination of events (the races followed after each other on the programme) at the Western Province Senior Schools Sport Union.

“I lost the 400m (B section) because my legs were tired after the 200m, and was emotionally crushed. But I believed that the 400m was the one race where I could make a go of it – so once I was confident that my studies would not be affected I returned to athletics via Allan O’Ryan’s Vikings Club to put that to the test – three years (1980) later and surprisingly I won the SAAAB 400m title at Athlone stadium – on grass!”

Mark Jacobs
After his track career, Mark Jacobs embarked on a number of road races, including the Two Oceans Marathon during the 1990s and 2000s.

While teaching at Mountview High School in Hanover Park, Jacobs discovered it was much easier coaching girl athletes to win in middle distance racing than boys or sprinting.

He was a member of the Vikings Club, but the club had to close because he was one of only two adults working at the time. As a result the club ran into debt with the union and was forced to close down.

Success as a coach

He and some of the old Vikings’ members then joined the Trafalgar Amateur Athletics Club.

He had remarkable success, as a coach, with Geraldine Fransman (high school WP champ and SA medal) and John September (school and club). He also enjoyed coaching Sammy Claasen. Jacobs remembers Claasen winning the SAAAB 1500m title in Port Elizabeth in the late 1980s.

“In those days, there were athletes who performed many other duties, serving their club and union in administration. In many ways this stunted their performance and they were never able to reach their full potential. On the other hand, we had athletes who were single-minded and devoid of administration and coaching who did very well. This is part of the Sacos story,” said Jacobs.

Mark has three daughters Julia 32, Rebecca 24 and Anna 21.

He is married to Jane Coombe.

Jacobs, 57, holds a PhD in Mathematics Education and works at CPUT.

On his return to athletics in 1988, Mark Jacobs (fourth from left in the back row) of Western Province qualified for selection to the South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB) track and field team, the highest level in athletics during apartheid.

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