At lunch time on 14 May, I was taking advantage of a gap between video calls by doing another lockdown run up and down my driveway.
As you can imagine, driveway laps are not particularly interesting and I welcome any distraction from the monotony. Therefore, every vibration on my phone results in an excited glance at the screen to see whatever notification has been delivered.
I was about 30 minutes into my regular 10km jog when the latest buzz presented the email notification, "Media Release: 2020 Comrades Marathon has been cancelled."
I didn't even break stride.
As the Covid-19 lockdown drew on, it was never a question of 'if' the Comrades would be cancelled, but 'when'.
The announcement was inevitable and expected. There was little shock or surprise from the running community.
However, as news that there would be "no refunds for local runners" hit social media, there was an eruption of vociferous hostility towards the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA), the likes of which are normally only reserved for government ministers.
Frustrated runners had already seen the Two Oceans, Irene and Loskop (the second, third and fourth largest ultras in the country) cancelled without refunds* and this was the final straw.
Taking the emotion (and expletives) out of the furore, the accusations were:
- Why had the CMA strung runners along and delayed the inevitable?
- Why was the CMA deferring international entries, but keeping the entry fee of loyal local runners?
- Why was the CMA putting profits over the runners?
- Why did the CMA greedily take substitution entries during lockdown when the race was likely to be cancelled?
- Why was the CMA destroying the good name of the Comrades Marathon in the name of financial profit?
- Why is the CMA hanging on to entrance fees when other races are offering full refunds?
As one of those runners, I decided it was time to investigate the merit of those charges and take an objective look at the costs, financials and rationale behind the refund / no-refund decision.
The ethics of substitutions
Keeping the substitution entries open after the Covid-19 lockdown without explicitly clarifying the refund policy appeared to be at best unethical and at worst totally unscrupulous. However, digging deeper it appears that is was more an unwillingness or inability to adapt to the radically changed landscape that Covid-19 presented.
According to Winn, "It was an unfortunate coincidence that could never have been foreseen that the substitution period which had been cast in stone in October 2019 happened to coincide with the onslaught of Covid-19. CMA did nothing to actively entice runners to take up substitutions and it was simply a facility which was available and to which 485 runners chose willingly to avail themselves."
This lack of accountability is like the wicked witch throwing up her hands, claiming it's not her fault that Hansel and Gretel were enticed to enter her gingerbread house. However, in the CMA's defence, keeping substitutions open was more ill-conceived than greedy as the additional revenue from the 495 substitution entries is marginal (around R100 000 from R200-per-runner substitution fee).
Special treatment for international entries?
The final charge levelled against the CMA was their decision to defer international entries whilst loyal South Africans were 'shown the middle finger'. International entrants are a minority of the field and, having paid over six times the local entrance fee, have bought themselves a 'business class ticket' to the event. This entitles them to a little extra legroom (and income from international entries helps to subsidise the cost of local entries).
The bottom line
As to whether or not the CMA expects to have a funding surplus or deficit at the end of 2020, Winn responded, "Unless we are able to secure Covid-19 relief funding from the government (for which we are in the process of applying) we will most definitely reflect a deficit for the year."
There are no winners in the Covid-19 pandemic. Communication and transparency from the CMA in the lead-up to the cancellation announcement definitely left a lot to be desired. However, looking at the facts and figures, one cannot fault their decision-making. The Comrades Marathon Association has come up with the best possible lose-lose scenario. Your R600 entry fee is not making anyone rich. Although there are a lot of South Africans who could use an extra R600 during the pandemic, securing the long-term future of the greatest ultra-marathon the planet is more important.
About the author
Stuart Mann has run over 240 marathons and ultras all around South Africa and the world (including 10 Comrades Marathons). He writes the popular "Running Mann" blog and his articles have featured in numerous local and international publications. He assisted over 80 athletes with sponsored and subsidised Comrades and Two Oceans entries in 2020. You can follow his adventures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.