FEW sports fans realise the hard yards an athlete has to put in to reach the pinnacle of a sport. They see all the tries being scored, the cricket ball being hit for a six or they witness a scintillating run on the track, yet rarely stop to think about the countless hours of hard work and sacrifices the star had to make before they could reach that moment of glory on the sports stage.
Nazeem Smith was equally at home on the rugby field as he was on the athletics track. He could swing a cricket bat, and bowl too – a talented sportsman, no doubt.
However, track athletics was the one sport in which he truly excelled, with the blue riband event – the 100m – his star event.
Smith was fond of athletics from a young age. It was at Portia Primary School in Lansdowne, Cape Town, under the guidance of sports master Nathan Jeneker, that an eight-year-old Smith started making his mark in the short sprints. A few years later, at the age of 12, he qualified for the Western Province Primary Schools team. The Western Province Primary Schools’ team of 1974 included Paul Brandt, Michael Chitter, Sharon Cloete and Dawn Crowie (Gossman), who later became household names in athletics.
Smith and George van der Burg of Alicedale Primary School were team mates in the sprints. They were to have a bit of rivalry. After their primary schooling, Smith and van der Burg both attended Alexander Sinton High School in Crawford, Cape Town.
Van der Burg had become a popular and sensational athlete at high school, excelling in the 200m and 400m – a difficult combination to run at Western Province Senior Schools, because of the time-tabling of the respective events on the athletics programme. He was a tall athlete and excelled in the triple jump event, too.
The long-striding George van der Burg inadvertently won six events at the SASSSA meeting in 1980. (As you might remember you were only allowed to participate in two track events and one field event, or two field events and one track event – three in all, no matter how you combined it, relays didn’t count! Well, George won six: 200m, 400m, triple jump – in a SASSSA record of 14,12 metres, long jump, javelin and the 4x100m relay. He was the reserve for javelin and long jump and had to compete after his teammates injured themselves.)
Smith’s high school career was beset with rugby and cricket injuries, and to crown it all, he didn’t grow as fast physically as Van der Burg.
“In high school, I didn’t grow much and I was battling with rugby and cricket injuries all the time,” recalls Smith.
Smith was always there, but battled to keep up with Van der Burg.
This was to change.
Point of no return
Deciding to become a school teacher in 1983, Smith attended the Hewat Training College in Crawford, Cape Town. By now, he, Smith, had filled out physically.
In the words of Julius Caesar ‘the die is cast’, as he crossed the Rubicon River with one of his legions to start the civil war that would bring him to power.
At college, Smith was to cross the Rubicon and come to power in the sprints.
However, this was not before his coach, Physical Education lecturer Andy Daniels put Smith through a rigorous training programme. He would be at the Hewat gym just after 5am; by 6am he had built up a sweat, and by 7am he had done his sprint repetitions on the track. This all interspersed with circuit and weight training.
Says Smith: “When I got to Hewat at the crack of dawn, I would see Suezette Arendse and Renoir Allen training already. Mr Daniels used to give me my training schedule and I would put it to practice in the mornings and afternoons. We had chats about race strategy too, nearer to race day or on race day itself.”
Smith was no longer a primary school kid. He was ready – ready for the big boys with reputations.
In 1983, he had had a few races against Edmund Lewis of Paarl Achilles, a former Spes Bona High School and Western Province Senior Schools’ sprinter.
Smith was to have his first full season as a senior sprinter in 1984 during which he swept everybody aside at the Vygieskraal Stadium. He cleaned up the 100m, 200m and 400m races. By then he had the SAAAB 400m record of 48,04 seconds. He had broken the 400m record three times that season.
His only defeat came in the SAAAB 200m race, by the smallest of margins, to Edmund Lewis and the loss in the 4X100m relay to Boland.
Earlier in the 1984 season, Smith and Van der Burg locked horns in the senior men’s 200m that would become one of the most memorable 200m races. Van der Burg and Smith were both Spartan athletes at different times of their careers. Smith was competing in the colours of Hewat. Van der Burg in the black and white colours of Spartans. On the day at the Vygieskraal Stadium, Van der Burg won the 100m in 10,7 seconds into a stiff South-Easter. Smith was watching the race from a distance.
The starter’s steward Andy James pitted them together in Heat 1 of the 200m. Heat 2 was made up of athletes experiencing their first season as seniors – the tension was palpable. The race favoured Van der Burg since this was his main event. Smith, though, had ideas of his own. Van der Burg was on the inside of Smith. They settled into their blocks. Then, the crackling of the starter’s pistol and they were off along with the others in Heat 1. Smith took off like a runaway train as if the curve was a straight line; Van der Burg had no chance of catching up, although he had given his all, and by the time Van der Burg reached the 150-170m he was done running. Smith was streets ahead, running into a South-Easter that was blowing notoriously at about 4pm. It wasn’t about the time that day, rather it was a race to behold.
On January 28, 1984, at the Stellenbosch meeting held at the Vygieskraal Stadium, Smith shattered Gareth Maclean’s Western Province 200m record of 21,3 seconds set in 1974 when he beat champion sprinter Edmund Lewis in a Western Province record time of 21,24 seconds.
At the South African Amateur Athletics Board track and field championships in 1984, Smith beat Edmund Lewis in the 100m equalling the SA record of 10,5 seconds, not for the first time. In the 200m, he and Lewis crossed the line together, first place going to Lewis in 22,0 seconds.
A promising career lay ahead for Smith. But that was nearly dashed. July 14, 1984, had shocked the sporting fraternity as Smith encountered a ferocious tackle to the neck in the SA Cup match between Uitenhage and City and Suburban in Uitenhage, Eastern Cape.
The tackle caused doctors to place a metal halo round his head and immobilise the head, shoulders and body with a contraption that would have scared off even Hannibal Lecter. He was out for several months. During that time, amazingly, Smith was keeping “fit” by cycling on an indoor bicycle.
Long story short, he was back on the line in the 100m in 1985 at the SAAAB track and field championships in Port Elizabeth. There he beat the likes of Ian Rutgers, Rakesh Shewduth and Esmond Zimri. Admittedly, it had been a close race. Smith was back and burning up the track. At the SAAAB Prestige meeting, he beat Rutgers again in a time of 10,5 seconds. By then, Smith held the 400m record of 47,1 seconds, had equalled the 100m record of 10,5 and held the WP 200m record of 21,2 seconds and was a member of the 4X100m record under the name of Hewat.
He was nearing the peak of his sprinting prowess.
At the top of his game
That peak came in March 1986 when on a perfect day at Green Point Track, he flashed across the 100m in a world-class time of 10,2 seconds. He was to run that time again at the Vygieskraal Stadium some two weeks later. Phenomenal. It grabbed front page headlines in the Afrikaans press. (The English press carried the usual few centimetres, down page, of course.)
At the SAAAB meeting at the Dal Josafat in Paarl in April 1986, a short, stocky sprinter by the name of Joseph Jonas upset the cream of Western Province sprinters, including Smith, when he won the 100m in a time of 10,4 seconds. Smith was third, in 10,7. Earlier, Smith won the men’s 400m race. The 200m went to Kevin Africa of Western Province. A week later, at the SAAAB Prestige meeting, Smith pulled out all the stops, beating Jonas in the 100m and 200m. He rounded off the day’s work by winning the 400m. He was now at the top of his game.
In subsequent seasons, he was never to run like that again. The arrival of Shaun Vester and Bobang Phiri on the senior stage shook up the sprints, including Smith. Vester had gone on to beat Smith in the 100m and 200m. Phiri lurked in the 200m and 400m.
In a race in 1990, Smith beat Vester in the 100m at the Philippi Stadium in a time of 10,4 seconds. That was pretty much the last time anyone would see the two stars compete in the sprints.
Smith’s records were still intact by the time the record books closed in 1994.