BY CLEMENT DU PLESSIS
This is the first chapter of a two-part series about sprint sensation Vernon Balie of Hewat Training College who won both the WPSSSU boys’ open and WPAAU senior men’s sprint titles in 1973.
VERNON Balie hasn’t lost an iota of his enthusiasm for athletics.
Standing in the spring sunshine of his Crawford home, the grey-haired Balie, 65, recalled some of the finest international sprinters of his time.
He was quick to highlight Olympic sprint champion Jim Hines of America, the first sprinter to dip under 10 seconds in the 100m (hand timed and electronic) in 1968. He also recalled Olympic sprint champions Bob Hayes of America (Tokyo 1964) and Armin Harry of Germany (Rome 1960).
He even had something to say about the Russian Valery Borzov (the 1972 double Olympic sprint champion) and the similarity in style of the Boland Express Edmund Lewis of Paarl.
Although these athletes made an impression, Balie had drawn inspiration from Madagascan Jean-Louis Ravelomanantsoa, a 100m finalist at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico.
“I had gone to an ‘international’ athletics meeting at the Green Point Stadium in 1972. This was before the non-collaboration clause of the Sacos policy in 1973 which prohibited the interaction with multi-national sport. I had seen Jean-Louis Ravelomanantsoa for the first time. I had a similar build to him and I was inspired by his running style,” said Balie.
Balie participated under the national banner of the South African Amateur Athletics and Cycling Board which became an affiliate of the newly-established South African Council on Sport in 1973, the anti-apartheid sports movement.
“We were bunched together by historical conditions [the political, social, cultural and religious conditions of the period] in an oppressive environment,” he said.
His career took off at Hewat, although he had been a Boland High Schools’ sprinter.
At Western Province Senior Schools’ Sports Union level (Hewat was affiliated to the WPSSSU), there were only two spots available for track athletes.
“I got to Hewat in 1971. The college already had Herman Gibbs and Allan O’Ryan as their top sprinters in my first year there. In my second year I injured my hamstring. I had to earn my spot on the Hewat team. I trained very hard to make the team and run the times I did,” said Balie.
What a humble Balie doesn’t say in the interview is that he had beaten Gibbs in the 100m at an inter-house meeting on the cinder track at Hewat. Gibbs won the 200m.
At first, he couldn’t break into the two spots available for sprinters at the WPSSSU inter-schools’ meetings.
Even though he had won at the 100m at the inter-house, he lost out on a slower time to Allan O’Ryan and Gibbs for a spot on the Hewat team in the individual sprints in 1971.
The head of the Physical Education Department at Hewat was Norman Stoffberg, himself a crack 400m athlete in the 1940s and 50s, ruled that O’Ryan would take the second spot based on a faster time than Balie.
Stoffberg was an athlete of the Achilles Athletics Club based in Cape Town. His club had won the Andrewena Cup several times before and after World War 2.
Balie got his opportunity in 1973 to showcase his explosive running style in the 100m – the only sprint event he focused on. He did not run the 200m because he had been bothered by a persistent hamstring injury which finally curtailed his career.
Having read up on the powerfully-built American sprinters, and having watched the highlights of the 1968 100m Olympic final in movie houses, he started training with weights.
“I had gone to the library in Paarl, but all they had there was a middle distance to long distance book on athletics. I used the knowledge from the book and combined it with the weight training programme I had used,” said Balie.
In spite of having some prized scalps under his belt during 1971 and 1972, Balie had to play second fiddle to the athletes with reputations at Hewat.
He bided his time by keeping fit and competing.
In 1973, Balie ripped up the opposition at WPSSSU level when he won the boys’ open 100m race ahead of Andy James of Belgravia High School. The other athletes in the field included Mohammed Paleker and G Williams of Elsie’s River High School.
Balie was the fastest on the day at the newly-built Athlone Stadium in 1973 when the Champion of Champions meeting was held there for the first time from Green Point Track since 1964.
Best on the day
He clocked a time of 11 seconds flat on the slow grass track of a windswept Athlone Stadium, next best were the boys under 17s Terrence Smith of Heathfield High School who clocked 11,2 seconds – followed by Edmund Lewis of Spes Bona and Melvin Lewis of Alexander Sinton.
These names were part of the powerhouse of sprinting in the Cape in the 1970s.
Next week. Part Two:
The story includes the generous coverage in the Cape Times of the white middle distance stars Marcello Fiasconaro and Danie Malan, and the South African Games which included West Germany, USA, Britain, Japan, France, Rhodesia, Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Canada, Sweden and Spain.
The Games were held at the Pilditch Stadium, Pretoria in 1973, and included black participants Adolf Treuh (400m – 46,2 seconds) and Joe Leserwane (46,5 who finished second and third behind Fiasconaro). They were also the first black medallists of the Games.
- Evidence of Vernon Balie’s action newspaper photograph in the Cape Times of the SA Library’s archives could not be found. Instead, his time of 10,6 seconds over 100m to win the WP senior men’s title under Sacos was verified by another source.