How church athletic meetings inspired champion sprinter Andrew James


THIS is part one of the Andrew James story in a two-part series.

(Featured photograph: Dame Kelly Holmes and Andy James. Holmes is a retired British middle distance athlete. She specialised in the 800 metres and 1500 metres events and won a gold medal for both distances at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.)

NEARLY 50 years since his first competitive sprint race, Andrew James can still be found working earnestly as a race referee in some of Cape Town’s top international athletics events.

Former champion sprinter Andy James can be found ploughing back into athletics as a top official at athletics events in the Cape.

Better known as Andy to most, he first came to Cape Town in 1971 to attend Belgravia High School in Athlone.

James was born on 11 June 1953 in Tarka, a coloured residential area in Mossel Bay. These days Mossel Bay celebrates the annual Tarka Street Festival.

All Saints Primary School

He attended the All Saints Primary School up to Std 5 (grade7) and was regarded as a “big boy”, aged 4, while still in pre-primary school.

Sport in Mossel Bay for schoolchildren in the 1960’s was sparse and athletics even more so.

James got his opportunity to participate in athletics when the Volkskerk of South Africa organised inter-church athletic meetings in Oudtsthoorn, Paarl, Cape Town and Mossel Bay.

He participated in the 75 metre races for under 11’s which comprised egg and spoon and sack races on a rugby field bereft of grass.

Andy James gained a treble in the sprints at the Pinelands athletics track in March 1977.

James would win these races with ease ‘simply because I was big for my age’.

“My winning prize was my first Bible in 1967 at an inter-church meeting in Mossel Bay,” remembers James.

He remembers Julian James and Johnny Petersen being faster than him while attending Sao Bras Senior School in 1969 which had classes up to Std 8 (grade10).

Move to Cape Town

Though he had completed school Std 8 (grade 10), he only came to Cape Town in 1971 after family friends encouraged him to attend Belgravia High School.

There were no high schools in Mossel Bay at the time. The principal of ‘Bellies’ was Abel Jordaan, and the sports master was Freddie Britten who was to have his day in the sun as a top high school’s athletics coach when he set the school on an A Section and Champion of Champions run in the late 1970s to mid-1980s.

Andy James is seen competing in a pair of smart Adidas spikes in the 1970s.

James ran barefooted in Mossel Bay.

“I never ran in spikes and did not even know about it. Freddie Britten introduced me to the use of spikes. He was the Physical Teacher to boys at the school,” says James.

James was an instant success in his first try-out in serious athletics, winning the boys open 100m and 200m races for Red House at the school’s inter-house meeting at City Park.

Top talent

On his arrival to Cape Town in 1971, the senior sprint athletics scene (100m and 200m) was filled with the talents of Herman Gibbs (Hewat), George Montanus (Belgravia and Athlone), Allan O’Ryan (Hewat), Basil Kannemeyer (Hewat), B Marients, Lawrence Jacobs (Livingstone), Henry Davids (Trafalgar), Jackie Swanepoel (Athlone), and Sedick Kalam (Trafalgar).

James’ love for athletics and his determination to be counted amongst the best saw him win the boys open 100m and 200m at the inter-schools meeting at the Green Point Track in 1972. Belgravia High School had competed with schools such as Heathfield High in the C-Section on the day Terrence Smith of Heathfield ran a whirlwind time of 22,3 seconds in the boys under 16 age group.

Andy James was both a WP schools and clubs 400m champion. Here is a diploma of James’ senior men’s 400m victory at national level.

For a peculiar reason, Smith’s time of 22,3 had been typed up in the record books as 22,9 seconds of which there is no record in any of the newspaper cuttings.

400m champion

James, who established himself as a 400m champion, also had to contend with some of the brilliant athletes at this distance in the Cape which included Wilfred Daniels (ER), Gavin Benjamin (BSA), Joe Warries (BSA), Peter Hartogh, the twins Abraham and Henry Charles (Elsie’s River), Allan O’Ryan (later Vikings, formerly Hewat) and an athlete by the name of G Manjo who attended one of the high schools in the city (either Trafs or Harold Cressy).

A certain Gareth McLean, representing the Eastern Province at the time, was cleaning up the boys under 19 sprint division in 1972. He soon joined the senior ranks, while studying teaching at Hewat Training College in 1973 and 1974 when the rivalry between the Cape’s sprinters intensified.

From left: Andy James, Gareth McLean and Mohammed Paleker.

McLean and John Wippenaar (Spes Bona), who represented WP, ran together in the age groups at SA schools’ level. Wippenaar had a brief senior career while McLean went on to establish himself as one of the greats at senior level. More about their rivalry later with James, Paleker, Ismail Collier, O’Ryan and a young Edmund Lewis.

A Section 100m champion

The A-Section of 1973, won by South Peninsula High School (115 points) and followed by Alexander Sinton in second place (100), saw James win the boys open 100m (10,9 seconds)  ahead of his perennial rival Mohammed Paleker (Belgravia) with an athlete by the name of G Williams of Elsie’s River High taking third place.

The names G Manjo (400m), G Williams and B Marients crop up often in the first three places of the sprint events.

Vernon Balie

At the A-Section in 1973, Williams won the 200m (22,4 seconds) with Paleker second. Abraham Charles, twin brother of Henry, won the 400m (50 seconds flat) ahead of James and V Herbert of Alexander Sinton. The 4x100m relay, won by Belgravia in a time of 43,9 seconds at this meeting, must have been an exhilarating race when one factors in James and Paleker of Belgravia, the Charles twins and Williams of Elsie’s River.

From left: Andy James and Edmund Lewis in white shorts.

If the boys open 100m wasn’t already red-piping hot with the available talent on show, Vernon Balie of Hewat, who had been busy carving out a sprinting career, handed James, Paleker and Williams a surprise by winning the boys open 100m race at the first Champion of Champions to be held at the brand new Athlone Stadium in 1973. The inaugural champ of champs was held in 1964 at the Green Point Track.

 Calibre of sprinting

Balie was the fastest on the day on the grass track with a time of 11 seconds flat. Terrence Smith was next best in the under 17 age group (including Edmund Lewis of Spes Bona, and Melvin Lewis – Alexander Sinton) in 11,2 seconds.

This was the calibre of sprinting and competition James encountered after his trek from Mossel Bay.

From left: Ismail Collier (double stripes), Andy James (white shorts) and Gareth McLean on the old Athlone stadium in the 1970s.

The athletics club scene in 1973 was equally intimidating with Collier, Montanus and a young McLean ruling the roost at senior level. Jock Manduray, GT Moodley (the first 400m schools’ athlete to run 49 seconds) and Allan O’Ryan finished in that order in the senior men’s 400m at the SA Champs in 1973.

After a low-key season in 1973 by James’ standards, he bounced back in 1974, starting to establish himself as one of the best 100m and 400m sprinters.


McLean was in town by 1974, studying at Hewat, and James wasn’t difficult to find either. Together with Paleker, they started an absorbing rivalry in the mid -1970s. Collier of Natal, who had moved down to the Cape to teach at Heathfield High School was also on the winner’s podium at one stage or the other. Theirs’ were big-time sprinting.

  • Athletics Clipboard will feature part two next week.


One thought on “How church athletic meetings inspired champion sprinter Andrew James

  • August 27, 2018 at 5:45 pm

    Dear Publisher, it is great to read the comments by Andy James. Andy James, George Montanus, Ismail Collier, Allan O’ Ryan and Mohammed Paleker were great sprinters and provided me with the stiffest competition at the height of my career. My fondest memories of Andy and Allan are their dedication. Under Eddie May we trained very hard. The rivalry during training was as tough as the competition itself. We also had an alliance against Collier because we did not want him to come and take the SA title back to Natal. When Collier came down to Cape Town, he always served as an extra motivation to work harder. – Regards, Gareth McLean.


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