EDMUND Lewis was without a shadow of a doubt one of South Africa’s all-time great sprinters.
Few would argue against his natural ability in the 100m and 200m over a period of more than 15 years.
One person and athlete who might argue against his performances is Terrence Smith of Heathfield High School, the only athlete Lewis did not beat as a schoolboy athlete at Spes Bona High School in Athlone, Cape Town.
Lewis was Smith’s understudy at Western Province Senior Schools Sport Union (WPSSSU) from 1970 to 1973. Both athletes matriculated while still under 17.
Smith had the odd race in 1974, by which time he was a student at the University of Cape Town, the year he turned 18, and lost to surprise packet Henry Coetzee from Bonteheuwel at the Athlone Stadium.
Lewis continued with his athletics career in 1974 and won the South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB) junior men’s 100m title in a record time of 10.8 seconds in Paarl. He also won the 200m. Lewis, who is from Paarl, represented Boland for the duration of his athletics career. In 1975, he broke the junior men’s 200m record in a time of 22.1 seconds at the SAAAB championships in Durban after winning the 100m, the championships Ismail Collier of Natal won the senior men’s 100m (10.7 seconds) and 200m (21.1 seconds, a SAAAB record) titles.
By 1976, Lewis ran himself into the senior men’s record books with a time of 10.5 seconds (SAAAB record) in the 100m and won the 200m in 21.6 seconds at the SAAAB meeting in Paarl, putting Collier into retirement.
This was phenomenal for a junior competing in the senior ranks for the first time. In 1974, Gareth Mclean, a main rival of Collier, held the senior men’s 200m record of 21.3 – a contemporary of the great John Wippenaar at schoolboy level.
Without question, by now, Lewis’ name was emblazoned in bold capital letters in the pantheon of great sprinters.
Mohammed Paleker of Belgravia High School and Spartans, one of the top Western Province schools and clubs sprinters and a contemporary of Collier in the mid-1970s said: “Edmund was the best at the time. There were others, but he was the best, he was excellent.”
If Lewis didn’t dominate at junior level, he sure dominated at senior level from 1976 up until 1984, only to be interrupted in 1979 by Robin Mclean of Eastern Province (one of the four Mclean brothers of Port Elizabeth) who won the 100m in 10.7 seconds and the 200m in 21.5 seconds in Durban, and again in 1982 to Gavin van Eyck of EP.
Finest sprinter in the country
Lewis turned the tables in 1980 when he beat Robin Mclean at the SA’s at the Athlone Stadium. Mclean went on to become a junior Springbok with the establishment, upsetting the likes of Wessel Oosthuizen and Peter Ngobeni. The question arises, what would Edmund Lewis have achieved given an equal opportunity to showcase his sprinting talent?
Lewis was described by the Cape Herald in 1980 as the “finest sprinter in the country”.
Andre Alexander, who literally grew up in front of Lewis as a primary and high school’s athlete, had this to say: “He was the best sprinter I have seen at Athlone Stadium. His technique and composure, at full speed, were magnificent to watch. He looked very relaxed while sprinting, as it should be.”
Alexander was referring to the floodlit, club athletics meetings at the Athlone Stadium.
Alexander, who also attended Spes Bona High School, was the WPSSSU sprint champion between 1980-1982.
The 1982 senior men’s sprint titles were won by Eastern Province’s Van Eyck (100m in 11.3) and Nazeem Davids (200m in 23.09). Leading the 100m race, both Lewis and Van Eyck (he managed to hold on to win the race) pulled up with hamstring injuries and had to withdraw from the 200m race.
In 1984 at the age of 28, he lost the SAAAB 100m (10.6) title to Nazeem Smith, but bounced back in the 200m (22.1), running on the outside of Smith, the up and coming sprint talent of Hewat Training College.
Lewis held the SAAAB senior men’s sprint titles in 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1983, 1984 (only the SAAAB 200m title). He competed on all surfaces: grass, clay and cinder, and his times were hand-timed. It was only towards the end of his career that he was fortunate to compete on the tartan track, even then he was a consistent sub 11 and sub 22 sprinter. (aged 27, 28)
‘He made it look so easy’
“I saw him in Paarl for the first time in November 1983. Edmund Lewis beat me in Paarl, and he easily won the race. There was daylight between me and him. He made it look so easy. Right there and then I knew I had to work on my style and start. Lewis was an experienced athlete. He did not talk to anybody, he just went about his warm-up alone. Lewis had the rhythm and I had the fight. Lewis was structured well, the way he ran suited his bodyline, he had a very good technique,” said Nazeem Smith who went on to crack Kenny Roman’s record of 10,4 at the Green Point Track with a time of 10.2 and again 10 days later at the Vygieskraal Stadium in 1986.
Smith also remembers playing rugby for City and Suburban against Lewis who played for Boland in 1981/82. He did not know about Lewis’s sprint prowess at the time.
Those spectators and athletes who had the privilege to see Lewis sprint can vouch for his economical style of sprinting – fast, regal and relaxed. His composure was exactly the same over 100m and 200m. It was really good to watch. Ian Rutgers was another who had the composure and speed of a top-class sprinter.
John Wippenaar and Shaun Vester
Lewis has praise for sprinters he had seen over the years.
“I thought John Wippenaar and Shaun Vester could have gone to great heights. Terrence Smith was the only rival I did not beat. It is a pity he did not continue after school, because that was when I came into my own,” said Lewis.
Internationally, he followed Carl Lewis.
Edmund Lewis was never enticed or lured by the establishment. In fact, it never occurred to him to switch allegiance from the Sacos-affiliated SAAAB to the predominantly white South African Amateur Athletics Union (SAAAU) propped up by the lily-white apartheid government of the day.
“Apartheid was a period that not only hampered our sport stars from reaching their full potential, but it also caused a rift among families from a sporting perspective. For example, one son would participate under the SACOS banner while his sibling would participate on the other side, but at night they had to share the same room. We under the SACOS banner made sacrifices, but I reckon we made our contribution towards eradicating apartheid,” said Lewis.
William Lloyd Primary School
Lewis’ sprinting talent shone through as early as an under 6 athlete, winning his races even before attending William Lloyd Primary School in Paarl. He left William Lloyd in 1968 to attend Spes Bona High School between 1969 and 1973. He joined the Paarl Achilles Club in 1975 until he hung up his spikes in 1985 at the age of 29. By then, Edmund Lewis had seen and done it all.
Besides athletics, Lewis’ other major sport was rugby. He played first team rugby for Young Standards Rugby Football Club for 21 years from 1974 onwards. He represented Boland 62 times on the wing from 1978 to 1982. This included two SA Cup finals in 1978 (lost) and 1980 (drew). He participated in the 1978 SARU trials held in Port Elizabeth. He also represented Paarl Rugby Union (SARU) for a number of years.
The greatest influence on his sporting career was his father, Theys (Theysie) Lewis, the well-known rugby player, administrator and teacher. He was known as “Meester” in Paarl – a name Edmund Lewis could easily have acquired as one of the great sprinters during those dark days of apartheid.