TRACK and Field Athletics, under the auspices of the South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB), had been offering provincial colours to club athletes during the 1950’s, with no provincial colours on offer for high school athletes.
The board was formerly known as the South African Amateur Athletic and Cycling Board of Control, constituting four provinces Natal, Transvaal, Orange Free State and Cape Province.
The first opportunity for high school athletes to gain provincial colours only came about in the 1960’s after a decision was taken in Kimberley in 1954 to organise high school athletics under the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union.
This resulted in three inter-school sections (A, B and C ) for high schools’ athletics meetings.
It was only in 1964 when the first Champion of Champions athletics meeting was held at the Green Point Track in Cape Town.
The lack of provincial recognition at school level also meant no competition at national level.
This robbed many a great athlete of the opportunity to show their mettle on the national stage. One such athlete who had been denied the opportunity to demonstrate his class at national schools’ level was John Webb of South Peninsula High School. Webb was the 1963 and 1964 senior men’s long distance champion (880 yards to six-mile miles).
But Webb’s rise to the pinnacle of the sport got off to a rocky start.
“I was chased away as an 11-year-old from athletics practice at the AME church school in Myburgh Road, Diep River by my teachers in 1954 who said that I was no good. I wasn’t given a chance,” remembers Webb.
Turning potential adversity into opportunity, this defining moment drove Webb to the top of athletics.
“In 1955 at the Heatherdale Home in Belgravia Estate I came fourth to Donald Fuller, Richard Jethro and Johnny Jethro in my first 80 yards sprint as a 12-year-old,” says Webb, who is now 73 years-old.
SP in 1956
He had gone to SP with this reputation – a fourth place in an 80-yard sprint.
Webb got to SP in 1956 while Attie De Villiers was principal, but it was RC Hepburn and particularly Richard Rive, the school’s sports master and English Teacher at the time who spotted his talents in the longer distance races. This transition only came later though as Rive insisted, for a while, that Webb be a sprinter.
“I came to SP as the third best sprinter. I could not beat the school’s Desmond de Monk (1st) and Attie Williams (2nd) in the 100 yards – the big names at the time,” recalls Webb.
Richard Rive had coached the school’s athletes on a sports field near Kendal Road and Ladies Mile in Diep River. They later moved to the Princeton sports ground, renamed the William Herbert sports ground in Wynberg.
“Rive would take the entire school to the sports field and do the eliminations there for all of the events,” says Webb of Rive who coached the school to victory on several occasions in the 1950’s and early 1960’s.
One section for all
Rive also masterminded high schools athletics being organised under the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union in 1964.
During the 1950’s “all the schools competed in one section, including Luckhoff High School from Stellenbosch and Trafalgar High School in Cape Town”.
“It was a mad scramble at the start of the long distance races. In the heats, only the winner went through to the final,” remembers Webb.
Webb’s long-distance talent, however, wasn’t unearthed in Ladies Mile as Rive had taken him to Green Point Track in a surprise move to compete against the top athletes Eric Hector (the SAAAB 880 yard junior champion) and Gerald Hendricks (the SAAAB 440 yard junior champion).
“Rive insisted that we were going to sprint. He didn’t tell me that I was going to race against Gerald and Eric,” says Webb.
They were pitted against each other in the 880 yards.
“The race got underway. Gerald legged it for 440 yards and fell out, but Eric was still way out in front. However, by the 220-yard mark, I could see on the back straight that he was slowing down. I caught him with 100 yards to go and I never looked back since then,” says Webb, who had carved a successful career as a miler.
By the time Webb left school in 1960, he was the schools’ champion in the mile.
“He came here as a scrawny little youngster with a satchel in hand when no one knew of him or even spoke to him. But by the time he left, he was the schools’ champion in the mile event from 1958-1960 and everyone knew him and wanted to speak with him,” recalls Webb of the praised heaped on him by schoolteacher RC Hepburn.
1957 Polio outbreak
Some might wonder why the year 1957 is missing, it was the year of a polio outbreak on the Peninsula when no schools’ sport was played.
As there had been no higher honours in schools’ athletics at inter-provincial level, Webb competed for Croftons Amateur Athletics Club at club level where Harry Hendricks and Rive, amongst others, were the organisers of club and provincial athletics meetings.
At the time the revered Cecil Blows, the eight times senior men’s sprint champion, was an icon in the sport. He too did not have the opportunity of gaining WPSSSU or SASSSA colours as he was part of the restructuring of schools’ athletics for the thousands of athletes to follow from 1964 onwards.
“No, yes, Blows was exceptional, few could beat him, he dominated the sport,” says Webb.
Webb went on to become the 1962 South African Amateur Athletics Board’s junior champion in the 440 yards, the 880 yards, the mile, the 4X400m and the relay medley in Durban.
He trained on a hill, which is still there, in Princess Vlei, near his home in Windsor Road, Diep River, the sand dunes of Muizenberg and on Ou Kaapse weg. He trained with much older athletes in Leslie Titus and Alex Moses. `
In 1963, there was no SAAAB Track and Field championship as none of the provinces had been able to host the event because of a lack of funds.
“I won the three-mile as a senior at WP level and came second in the mile to Leslie Titus at Green Point Track in 1963,” says Webb.
His last season was in 1964 when he was unbeaten – the year Sam de Wet did not compete after falling out with officials. In fact, De Wet missed out on two seasons (1963-64) and only made a comeback in 1965. De Wet of the Elsie’s River Athletics Club was another revered long distance athlete of his time and a contemporary of Blows.
He managed to beat the national mile champion Titus in 1964.
The Golden City Post Newspaper, 22 March 1964, wrote: “The biggest sensation of the meeting was the defeat of the national mile champion, Leslie Titus, by a determined and strong finisher, John Webb.
“Alex Moses set a strong pace from the gun . . .”
In 1965 Webb started work on the railways and had to work shifts.
Webb married Rozette Matthyse of Mamre in 1966 and they have three children Marilyn (a schoolteacher), Pedro (who runs Webb’s business) and Charmaine who lives in Norwich, England.