Happy Birthday Two Oceans but challenges await

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CAPE TOWN – The Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon celebrated its 50th in some style on Saturday, with two of the most impressive performances of its half-centenary from Bongmusa Mthembu and Gerda Steyn, but its leadership face some significant challenges if the Cape’s greatest ultra-marathon is to sustain its success over the next fifty years.

The tragic death of one of the half-marathon runners notwithstanding – regrettably not an infrequent occurrence at a mega-event such as Two Oceans, there are a number of issues which will require urgent attention in the coming days, weeks and months, including sponsorship, television coverage, environmental integrity especially with regards plastic pollution, the vulnerability to political protests of the original route over Chapman’s Peak and accommodating the increasing demand.

None of these were likely even on the agenda when the race organisers held their debrief after the first race in 1970 and few who had witnessed the 16 athletes who completing the 1970 race within the cut-off time, could have imagined what the Two Oceans was to become.  What might be the shape of the 100th Two Oceans in 2069?

Old Mutual have announced they are ending their relationship with Two Oceans after a nineteen-year association – one of the longest and most successful partnerships in the sport.  The ‘Oceans’ need to decide whether or not to pursue another title sponsor, or build supporting partnerships with several companies, in the manner of the FIFA World Cup or the Olympic Games.

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Bongmusa Mthembu, in the zone and racing to victory on Saturday. Photo: Stephen Granger

The loss of live television coverage, due to the failure of ASA to secure a national contract with a host broadcaster, hurt the Two Oceans.  The Comrades Marathon faces similar challenges if the situation is not remedied within the next 6 weeks. Live television coverage remains one of the reasons for the success of both of South Africa’s top ultra-marathons and the resolution of this challenge should be a top priority for ASA.

Perhaps the most important challenge will be how to accommodate the growing demand for both the ultra and half marathons.  In order to accommodate both events on the same day, the 21km has become a virtual “night race”, especially for the leading athletes, who finish before 7 am as dawn is breaking.

A Friday half marathon along the picturesque Atlantic Seaboard, potentially starting and finishing at Green Point, could accommodate 30 000 and more – a figure likely to be reached in the not-too-distant future, if the current cap on 16 000 is lifted.

“We would certainly be able to attract 20 000 or more right now,” Two Oceans Chief Operations Officer, Sue Forge said.  “But the issue is how this might be acceptable to the City’s transport planners. We will be looking to making a change in the future but the timing is important.”

The City of Cape Town Director of Roads, Henry du Plessis, feels that the City could easily cope with such a scenario, from a planning and logistics point of view.  “The City can cope with anything it is faced with, if the planning is done in time.  The necessary resources would be made available to make it happen.

“But the organisers will need to do a detailed survey of all runners to determine whether having the event on Good Friday will be acceptable to the majority. Many might not support the event on the Friday, given its religious importance and that could have a negative impact for the sponsors.” 

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Gerda Steyn and Bongmusa Mthembu produced exceptional performances on the race’s 50th birthday. Photo: Stephen Granger

The numbers for the ultra-marathon would likely exceed 20 000 in the near-future if the current cap is lifted – as is currently the case for the Comrades Marathon – but this would also not be a problem for City traffic planning. “The extra numbers might lead to a longer staggered start, as with the Cycle Tour, but the logistics would be much the same and the City would be able to cope easily with those numbers,” said Du Plessis.

A Friday Half Marathon at Green Point, which celebrates, rather than impacts upon, the message of Good Friday, attracting 30 000 and more participants and leaving the Saturday to focus on upwards of 50 000 taking on the traditional ultra-marathon could take Two Oceans to the new level required to maintain its place in the top echelon of global mega-events.

@StephenGranger3

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