EVEN after 50 years, the name Sam de Wet still makes many athletics followers sit up and take notice of an athlete who once ruled in the middle distance and long distance races.
De Wet was absolutely sensational in the 1950s and 1960s.
Former 880 yards and 800m champion Robin April wrote elsewhere: “Sam de Wet was one of the most outstanding athletes during the sixties. His performances over the 5000m and 10 000m track events, if given the chance, would have been world class.
“Due to the apartheid system, he was unable to further his natural running abilities and make a South African team to participate at the Olympics.
“His stamina and his love for his fellow athletes will always be remembered.”
De Wet, 78, keeps fit daily by walking in his neighbourhood and the Tygerberg Nature Reserve. Elsie’s River was his training ground – the place he grew up and where he still lives.
In 1964 he was lucky enough to have had access to Peter Snell’s training methods and implement them first on himself and then as a coach at the Elsie’s River Amateur Athletics Club.
Snell of New Zealand was the first athlete to break the four minute barrier in Africa in 1964, the year he won two gold medals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games (800m and 1500m).
De Wet was introduced to the Elsie’s River Club from the Bellville South Athletics (BSA) by Jacobus van der Berg, who became his friend and Western Province team mate.
Sadly, Van der Berg died this year on 25 August, on the day of De Wet’s birthday.
“Van der Berg was the one who opened doors for me after my suspension in 1963 and 1964 for literally walking away from the Durban championships,” says De Wet.
He had walked and hiked from Durban to be with his sweetheart in Cape Town – a new Apostolic Church girl – by the surname of Meyer. De Wet is modest about his athletics achievements.
“The real story is about the walking and hiking from Durban when a white man had given me a lift from George all the way to Cape Town – all the time thinking that I was a white man. I would not have gotten the lift otherwise. He was keen to drop me off at my house, but I managed to convince him to drop me off near the airport,” remembers De Wet who also had a run-in with robbers in Transkei.
“In those days a white man and coloured man were not allowed to mix and socialise, let alone given a lift by a white man”, said De Wet.
Another notable incident in his long and distinguished athletics career was when he had run faster than the bare-footed De Villiers Lamprecht, the first South African to have a run dream mile on the track on 13 November 1964.
An English and Afrikaans newspaper reported that a “Coloured cabinet maker of Elsie’s River ran the mile in 4 minutes and 11,2 seconds at the Western Province Coloured athletics championships at the Green Point stadium yesterday. This was 0.1 seconds better than the sub four-minute miler De Villiers Lamprecht’s winning time in the White Western Province championships on Friday night. But what makes De Wet’s time so much more impressive is the fact that he ran under atrocious conditions. The track was loose and gravelly with holes all over the place and the heat was stifling”.
De Wet constantly ran on either side of the 4 minute and 10 seconds mark, his cuttings book bearing testimony to this.
De Wet was an extremely fit, determined and single-minded runner. For many years no one could match him over any distance from the 880 yards to the 10 000m – his favourite distance.
De Wet had to beat the champion distance runner Leslie Titus when he first started in athletics as a senior athlete in 1957. Titus, in many of the older folks’ books, was a terrific runner in the 1950’s.
It was Peter Forbes, a contemporary of Titus, who worked out a plan for De Wet on how to beat Titus.
“I wanted to win everything from primary school through to high school by staying in front of the other athletes. This didn’t always work out at senior level, especially not against Leslie Titus. Forbes told me to run behind Titus and make him do the hard work for a change,” explained De Wet. The strategy worked.
De Wet passed Titus on the home straight after an altercation on the bend which resulted in De Wet landing up on the arena, but he managed to steady himself and beat Titus by the narrowest of margins. Titus fell metres from the finish line. This was how Sam de Wet announced himself to senior athletics.
De Wet’s achievements from here on in saw him break record after record in the distance races. He was superb at cross country racing and was the first to win the Gossard Trophy, the winner’s trophy for the first six mile road (9,656 km) race organised by the Elsie’s River Club.
De Wet’s time was 29 minutes and 19 seconds, followed by Solomon Briesies (Somerset West) in 32 minutes and 0,4 seconds. P Barnard also of Somerset West was third in 33 minutes and 19 seconds.
“The funny thing about this race was that we had a white traffic cop from the traffic Department of Goodwood escorting us in the road race,” says De Wet.
De Wet also laughingly remembers being treated by a white physiotherapist.
“I’ll let it go, it was my way of getting back at the system of apartheid,” said De Wet.
But that is all in the past, he adds quickly.
“I hated the Afrikaner [he had used another term]. Listen, why did we support the All Blacks? Because of apartheid. The hate is no longer there. God’s Grace is big enough to forgive and move on. Your drive the hate from your heart, and that brings the healing and good health in your body. Look at Wade (van Niekerk), he has a white coach.”
“And we have a democracy with more opportunities for our children.”
Those opportunities were not meant for Sam de Wet and many others.
On the occasion of his 70th birthday, his much younger friend Kurt Konza had this to say: “ . . . And then I think again of athletes who earned fame in track events where you were a top athlete in South Africa. I try to imagine you as a top athlete without apartheid and then I ask myself the question. Would you, Sam de Wet, have been what Paavo Nurmi was to Finland, or Chris Chataway and Roger Bannister to England or Ron Clarke to Australia, or would you have been to our country a tactical runner like Emil Zatopek. I can just but wonder.”
(The original text from from a speech made by his friend Kurt Konza in Afrikaans):
“En dan dink ek weer aan atlete wat roem verwerf het in baan nommers waarin jy ‘n top atleet in Suid Afrika was. Ek probeer my indink aan jou as ‘n top atleet in ‘n Suid Afrika sonder apartheid en ek vra myself die vraag. Sou, jy, Sam de Wet, vir Suid Afrika wees wat Paavo Nurmi vir Finland was, of Chris Chataway en Roger Bannister vir Engeland of Ron Clarke vir Australia was, of sou jy vir ons land ‘n taktiese hardloper soos Emil Zatopek gewees het. Ek kan net wonder.”– Written by Clement du Plessis