SPRINTERS, the scientists say, are born not made. One such sprinter, who drew applause from packed stadiums whenever he donned the green vest of Heathfield High, was Terrence Smith.
Forty-four years past his heyday the city civil engineer stands as imposing as in the early 1970s.
His cuttings book is testimony to the man who was arguably the best sprinter the greater Peninsula has ever produced, his strength coming from his powerful legs rather than a muscular upper body.
His sprinting career in the 100 and 200 metres started when he was 12 years old.
In 1970 Smith went into the record books of both the Western Province as well as the South African Senior Schools sports organisations – affiliates of the South African Council on Sport (Sacos) in 1973.
By the time he had reached matric in 1973, aged 16, Smith was the record holder (for the 100m and 200m) in the four age groups from under-14 to under-17. Smith didn’t get the opportunity to have a crack at the boys open sprint records as he had completed matric in 1973.
As far as it is known, no other sprinter has this distinction – eight WPSSSU sprint records.
In his age group, he was world class. In 1973 at the Green Point Stadium 16-year-old Smith competed in only his second 400m race and smashed the record in a time of 49,3 seconds. This time was to beat even the senior men’s time.
Those who remember the talents of John Wippenaar (Spes Bona), Herman Gibbs (Alexander Sinton and later Hewat) and Kenny Roman (Harold Cressy) will also remember that it was Terrence Smith who wiped out their records.
He was never beaten in either sprint while at school. He was only beaten when he gave up athletics.
“I was already at university and somebody, in fact, the person who was sponsoring my studies, said he wanted to see me run. So just as a favour for my sponsor I competed without training, and lost,” recalls Smith.
In spite of going into early retirement, Smith had been the most revered sprinter of his community.
A holder of more than eight WP records simultaneously and several more SA records, Smith beat the odds. “We ran on gravel at Green Point Track. Later, at the Athlone Stadium, conditions were not suited for sprinting. The grass was not cut, so conditions were heavy,” he said.
Smith said he was convinced he could have run 10,1 seconds for the 100m on a tartan surface; instead he had to settle for a lifetime best of 10,4 seconds.
He added that Paul Nash was the athlete whom many sprinters at the time tried to emulate.
“We never ran under the same conditions, so it was difficult to make any sort of comparison,” he added.
Internationally he followed the sprinting careers of the Americans, Tommie Smith (1968 Olympic Games 200m champion) and Jim Hines (1968 Olympic 100m champion).
From Russia it was Valeri Borzov, the double sprint champion at the Munich Games. “There was this debate around the natural ability of the Americans and the ‘manufacturing’ of the Russian Borzov.”
“This was in the 1970s when the issue of drugs had not yet entered the Olympics.”
From a coaching perspective, there was hardly anyone around. Smith did his own winter training (from as early as May), running round Princess Vlei. He emphasised leg work and neglected gym work during training sessions.
During the season proper, his physical education teacher Andrew October helped get his sprint technique in shape.
“There were no official sprint coaches around. We developed our own sprint techniques from literature. Essentially, we coached ourselves.
“When I ran under-14, I did so barefooted. My father bought me a pair of spikes, but the spikes were too long for the gravel tracks I had been exposed too.”
He said the most disappointing aspect of competition was that he had no competitors, making his objective to run against the clock.
Smith’s wonderful athletics career came to an end after his matric year. His political consciousness would not permit him to compete against white athletes at the height of the apartheid era.
He then enrolled at UCT to study civil engineering under the then “permit” system.
“Because I rejected the permit system I did not use any UCT sports facilities. I made that conscious decision and I have no regrets. I am not bitter.
“To compete overseas was not an option. The country had been isolated already and I was not willing to run for another country to get into international competition,” said Smith.
Locally, Smith admired a sprinter from Natal – Ismail Collier – eventually moved to Cape Town and taught at Heathfield High.
“He was excellent, he was one of the best sprinters at the time.
“His technique was good, he was efficient and fluent,” said Smith of Collier.
Such humility from a great sprinter who now enjoys his family- medical doctor wife Carol and children Nicole, Julian and Warren – none of whom are particularly fleet of foot!