BY CLEMENT DU PLESSIS
JANTJIE Marthinus rose above countless obstacles to become an unparalleled nine times senior men’s 800m champion.
Born in 1962 in the small town of Brandvlei near Calvinia in the Northern Cape, Marthinus went to school in Ceres in the Western Cape, before furthering his studies at the universities of the Western Cape and Stellenbosch.
Some of his earliest athletics memories are as a young boy sprinting to the finish line.
“I was six or seven years old and remember running under the line of wool at the finish line,” he said, having started out as a sprinter.
Marthinus attended a small farm school, before moving to Morrisdale Primary School and Fred Gaum High School in the Ceres dorp (town), where he also played first team rugby and capped off his matric as head prefect.
Marthinus’ exceptional talent, both as an athlete and student, was first recognised by his school teacher Attie Noble at Morrisdale Primary. Soon after, Attie (and his wife Sybil) took Marthinus in as a child of their own.
From day one Marthinus’ excellent performances on the track are far too many to mention.
SASSSA 400m champion
He was in the Boland provincial team and records from the get-go, his third scrapbook bearing testimony to all his remarkable achievements. He was the South African Senior Schools (SASSSA) boys over 17 400m champion having clocked a winning time 49,2 seconds at Newlands, Johannesburg in 1981.
Still a junior athlete, Marthinus won the South African Amateur Athletics Board senior men’s 800m in Port Elizabeth in 1981 – his first of his nine SA 800m titles. At the same meeting, Freddie Williams of Western Province won the junior men’s 800m.
Marthinus lost the title in 1982 to Boland’s Harold Adams. However, he regained it in Durban in 1983. He won seven 800m titles under the South African Amateur Athletics Board and was unbeaten in the 800m from 1983 to January 1988. He won a further two 800m titles with the South African Amateur Athletics Union in 1990 and 1991.
SAAAB Athlete of the Year
He was the SAAAB Athlete of the Year seven times and held the SAAAB senior men’s 800m record of 1 minute 48,6 seconds. His best time over the distance is 1:46,6 set in 1990 while running under the SAAAU.
Marthinus had several coaches as he moved from school to school and club to club. In primary School, it was Attie Noble, at Fred Gaum it was Piet Minnaar, and as a young university student, he would train with the great Hennie Moses under the watchful eye of Coach Jeff van der Merwe (1982 and 1983).
On Moses, Marthinus had the following to say: “Hennie had the potential to run a sub four-minute mile on the track and on the road in the region of 3 minutes 40-45 seconds. You must remember, I was an 800m athlete running four minutes for the mile. Hennie had a time of 3 minutes 47,1 seconds for the 1500m without any competition,” says Marthinus.
Marthinus was a winner of a string of street miles in Elsie’s River, UWC and elsewhere.
Moses’ last race was in 1984, thereafter he took up a teaching position in Ceres in 1985 and was lost to athletics for good.
Doctorate in Sports Psychology
In the meantime, Marthinus also flourished in his school studies. However, despite his excellent matric results, he was told by Stellenbosch University in 1982 that they would not accept him and he should rather study at the Bush College (the University of the Western Cape) in Bellville.
Says Marthinus: “Despite the course being offered at Stellenbosch University, I was told to go to a coloured university.”
He was not discouraged, though, and went on to obtain a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Human Movement studies in 1986, as well as a Higher Diploma in Education at UWC. (His first teaching post was at Kasselsvlei High School in Bellville South in 1987.)
Marthinus continued his postgraduate studies and completed a Master’s Degree in Philosophy and a Bachelor of Education (at the same time) at Stellenbosch University in 1994.
In 2007, he reached the top of the academic ladder with a Doctorate in Philosophy – at the University of Stellenbosch!
Life for Marthinus had come full circle. Despite the initial rejection, he completed his stellar athletics and academic career at the University of Stellenbosch.
New 800m record
He became a Western Province athlete in 1983 when he was a student at UWC. Here he would a forge coaching relationship with the former SAAAB 800m record holder and Western Province coach Wilfie Daniels.
Their goal was to break the SAAAB record of 1 minute 51,9 seconds set by Daniels at the Green Point Stadium in 1975.
Marthinus incrementally chipped away at the record until he broke the 1 minute 50 seconds barrier twice in 1986.
“Wilfie and Judy (Abrahams) looked after me as an athlete. I was privileged in that sense. There were times I drove by car and not by bus and in 1988 I went by aircraft to Johannesburg to participate in the SAAAB prestige track and field meeting in Eldorado Park,” he recalls.
Sacos and the NSC
The same year he was selected to the 1988 Sacos team. He captained the team alongside his vice-captain Suezette Arendse.
Marthinus also made the first Sacos team in 1982 alongside Moses.
With unity on the horizon and the National Sport Congress (NSC) gathering momentum, Marthinus joined the SAAAU in 1989.
A sports summit in Johannesburg in 1989, organised by the NSC, had already discussed and reviewed the double standards resolution in order to create a mass-based sports movement with emphasis on grassroots and sports structures in the rural area. The NSC argued that a large section of black athletes did not form part of the non-racial sports body Sacos.
This led to power struggles within the NSC and Sacos, and a long story short, sport was never the same again.
Sacos’ policy of non-collaboration, its degenerating relationship with Sanroc (The South African Non Racial Olympic Committee, led by Sam Ramsamy) and its objection to international sport, at the time, lost the day. To exacerbate Sacos’ position, many of its affiliates went to attend the sports summit in a show of defiance which included some of the bigger codes like rugby, football and cricket.
Dawn of a new sports era
The dawn of a new sports era was upon us, whether one agreed or disagreed with it.
Marthinus had sighted the new dawn. His conscious decision to run under the SAAAU in 1989 was heavily criticised by Sacos diehards and his move was equally understood by other members within Sacos.
The dynamic of sports politics in South Africa was headed in an irreversible direction as early as 1989.
With not all the information at the disposal to all athletes (all codes), and the small publication, South, covering the radical sports events of the day, many athletes were none the wiser.
Some senior SAAAB athletes went on public record in making scathing remarks about Marthinus’ decision, only to jump ship themselves months later without the bravery and honesty of a Marthinus.
Dougie Oakes, one of South Africa’s premier journalists, wrote in South, February to Feb 8, 1989:
“It’s hard for me to say this, but I’d probably have more respect for a defector who carefully THINKS about his move than for a thousand others who choose to stay simply because of fear.”
The quote is in direct reference to Marthinus.
Marthinus had the foresight and vision to make the move he did. Some might say he had the inside track!
SA 800m champion
In 1991, a lily-white cricket team from South Africa was welcomed back into the international fold in Calcutta, India.
It marked the end of sports isolation for South Africa after 21 years, and it sparked mass enthusiasm, if not opportunity, for South Africa’s next generation of sportspersons.
While the officials were dragging their feet, Marthinus kept running and kept fit.
While competing under the SAAAU, he gained Junior Springbok colours and became the SA 800m champion on two occasions beating the likes of Springbok David Hlabahlaba and Johannes Mokeona in 1990 and 1991.
Marthinus’ training partner was Johan Landsman, the former SAAAU 1500m record holder. Landsman broke Johan Fourie’s record when he clocked 3 minutes and 33,56 seconds in Zurich, Switzerland. By then Landsman had won the SA title three times.
Sport Legend award
Although Marthinus won the SAAAU titles he felt that he was past his best in 1991.
“I was probably at my best in 1985 and 1986 when I was 24, 25 years old,” he said.
In his swansong, he competed at Crystal Palace, Gateshead and Cardiff in the Golden League. Here he met international stars Colin Jackson and Carl Lewis.
In 1992, the year South Africa was officially welcomed back into the international arena, Marthinus gained SA colours as a team member of the SA team who participated at the Unity Games in Dakar and Johannesburg.
He was also honoured as a Sport Legend in 2013 by the Western Cape Department of Culture and Sport.
He and Landsman also embarked on athletics development in the rural areas.