BY CLEMENT DU PLESSIS
COMING from relative obscurity, he rose through the ranks to become an athlete to be reckoned with, doing so with a demeanour and humility seldom seen on the track.
In an ironic manner, he stood behind Nazeem Smith (see Hewat colour pic), he was determined to learn from the best even though the disciplines were different. Smith, of course, grabbed the newspaper headlines when he broke Kenny Roman’s 100m record of 10,4 seconds at Green Point Track in March 1986. Smith’s record was 10,2 seconds.
He would pitch up early mornings at the Hewat ash track and gym in Crawford, Cape Town. There he would steal with his eyes and steadily work his way up to the top echelons of athletics.
In 1986, the indefatigable Keith Meyer was a part of an exciting, if not an excellent, Hewat athletics team who participated at the inter-college athletics meeting at Green Point Track.
As a newcomer to big-time athletics, he was in the company of Smith, Clement du Plessis (sprints), Edwin Mulder (race walking), Calvin de Kock (javelin) and Gawa Moyce (discus and shot put).
Meyer always had an interest in athletics.
“At Grassy Park High School, I discovered in Std 6 that I had the talent and knew what I wanted to do. In primary school I was the reserve in the sprints,” says Meyer who is the deputy principal at Fairview Primary in Grassy Park.
“Later on I competed in the 1500m.”
He believed he had “the God-given talent and he needed to find his event”.
Meyer attended two high schools, the other being Atlantis High. Here, he was to see the meteoric rise of Daniel Orange, the explosive high jumper and long jumper.
He competed in the 1500m and 5000m at high school with mixed success.
By the mid-1980s, Meyer of the Hewat Training College and later of the Grassy Park Amateur Athletics Club started his senior athletics career as a long distance athlete.
He started competing in the 3000m and steeplechase with reasonable success as a first timer, and at senior level. He beat a former WP senior schools long-distance athlete Deon Porthen while at college.
In fact, Meyer deleted John Hendricks’ 3000m college record of 9 mins 05,6 seconds of 1972 from the books. Meyer’s time was 8 minutes 57,6 seconds set at Green Point Track in 1986.
The training for these races was inadvertently the preparation for greater things to come for Meyer.
Meyer’s stocks were on the rise.
Meyer did not compete too long in the steeplechase events and other long distance races before he moved down to middle distance racing.
One thing most athletics aficionados had noticed was that Meyer had a stride perfect for middle distance racing (800m and 1500m). He made running look easy, yet he was quick enough over the distance.
“Shaun Vester’s coach, John Webb, had asked me why I don’t move down to the 800m and 1500m.”
Vester was also a member of the Grassy Park Amateur Athletics Club.
Over the next few years, Meyer worked his way towards the 800m and 1500m where he gained much success. His decision to compete in the middle distance events bore fruit.
He deposed Michael Toll as the 800m champion and John September as the 1500m champion.
One of his better performances came during his first UWC street mile in 1991.
Meyer put another one over these top guys, including Derick Fredericks, John September and Ebenezer Felix.
Within the last 200m, he calmly loped alongside John September and had noticed that September was giving his all. With an excited crowd and the voice of Club Chairman, Mark Ward shouting, ‘Go now,’ he realised that the finish must be fairly close. He looked forward and charged with power and speed to the finish.
“For a successful performance, one has to plan your race and execute it to perfection,” says Meyer.
“After the race John (September) didn’t want to shake my hand,” said a disappointed Meyer.
“From that day I told myself, he is not going to beat me ever again.”
Meyer was a regular competitor in the vibrant student league competitions at the University of the Western Cape which had started the first competitions there under controversial circumstances in 1985.
The South African Council on Sport (Sacos) had been against the use of facilities at universities, but the argument was that athletes under the Sacos banner were not propping up the government or collaborating with them. The student league series was entirely independent of the establishment and wasn’t collaborating whatsoever.
At UWC, he scored a couple of notable victories in the 800m and 1500m.
He remembers his first race with fondness.
“I asked a fellow competitor before the 800m race who the athlete is I must look out for.”
This was in 1991. The athlete turned out to be Michael Toll of Spartans and one of the top and former Western Province Senior Schools champions in the 800m during the early 1980s.
Taken by surprise
By now, Meyer competing in the colours of the Grassy Park Amateur Athletics Club had won an 800m race in the student league beating the likes of Michael Toll and Donovan Wright. Meyer’s winning time on the night was 1 minute and 53,5 seconds. He had run a better time of 1 minute and 52, 93 seconds in a race Michael Toll won (1:52,52), with Hermanus Williams second (1:52,55). Meyer was third.
In other interesting developments in Meyer’s career, he was taken by surprise when Donovan Wright and Kevin Kiewitz revealed their logbooks to him detailing their training schedule.
“For the first time I saw logbooks. Donovan Wright showed me his logbook, I thought to myself if I should train like this I would kill myself. All I did was road running in order to build up my stamina, nothing else.”
Meyer was also a sub-four-minute 1500m athlete.
Competing with the best and honing his skills all the while, Meyer walked into the Western Province team.
In 1991 on a rainy evening at the SA Board Track and Field Championships in Paarl, Meyer, running in the colours of Western Province, won the 1500m race and, thus, had become the SA champion in the event.
Donovan Wright came second and Mark Frank third in the SA 1500m that night in Paarl.
He was a participant at the SA Board Prestige Track and Field Meeting at the University of the Western Cape in 1991 – a meeting reserved for the top athletes only.
“The same year, athletes were promised a place in the South African team who would go to the Olympic Games in 1992.
“The athletes believed that Athletics South Africa (ASA) would form a combined team from SAAAU (Whites), SAAAB (Coloured) and the SAAAC (Blacks) within the first year as a unified organisation. With this as an incentive, I ran the race of my life at the SA championships in Paarl in 1991. In torrential rain, on a slippery, muddy track at Dal Josafat, I pulled out all the stops to beat Donovan Wright to the post. The next day the rest of the meeting was moved to UWC because of the condition of the track. “A few months later, it had been raised at the WP meeting that I would not be included in the Olympic Team due to me not being a viable option for the future. I was told that I was too old (25 years old) and that the people who controlled the purse strings (such as Danie Malan) had made the final decisions.
“The only reason why I won that race is because Danie Malan had told the athletes the winner of each event would be on the plane to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. That was certainly my incentive. While my time wasn’t out of this world, the conditions on the night, rainy as it was on the clay track that had become muddy In Paarl, I felt I should have been on the plane,” explained Meyer.
He wasn’t. Instead, Meyer’s first visit to the Olympics came in the 2004 Athens Games – as a table tennis official!
*SAAAB – South African Amateur Athletics Board
*SAAAC – South African Amateur Athletics Congress
*SAAAU – South African Amateur Athletics Union