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When will we race again?

The question on just about every trail runner’s lips? What sequence of complex criteria must be unlocked before we are able to pin our numbers on once more? As South Africa adjusts to a decidedly less draconian set of pandemic-prevention rules, various sectors of industry have had the greenlight flashed their way. We can cross provincial borders for leisure, we can fill a plane to capacity, we can host gatherings of 50 or fewer, and our education systems have resumed an almost-normal regime, albeit with precautions in place. Trail racing, with its abundance of fresh air and natural social distancing, seems a logical next development, but who oversees that greenlight, and why the delay?

The answer is complex. Firstly, a permit for trail racing must be obtained from the landowner or the official curator of such land. For the most part, that piece of paper is signed off by SANParks or Cape Nature, unless the land is privately owned. Obtaining said permits has never been a simple process. Strict health and safety protocol must be presented, compliance with disaster management plans, environmental management plans and hefty fees paid. Depending on where you race, participation numbers are also controlled, as is the window of time allowed for the race. Added to this, we now have an indication that no more than 50 people may be present at any race, and this includes staff. Batch running is quite possible, and trail racing has never attracted substantial spectator numbers, so it remains viable within the strict criteria. Add to this, each participant enters with full discloser of contact information and their ID number, so Covid-19 tracing is guaranteed. Trail runners typically carry their own hydration and nutrition, making it easy to abandon the traditional aid station and supply of any open food or drink.

Are we at the back of an imovable bus?

When Level 2 kicked off, sports events organizers were given assurance that individual proposals to resume hosting events would be validated by the official associations responsible for the management of sporting codes in South Africa. So, for cycling CSA and running, ASA. CSA has approved some of the proposals that have come their way, with part of their reasoning being that bicycles enforce social distancing because of the wheels in the front and back. Single file racing, then? Not bloody likely. Through this structure, events such as Double Century have obtained their permits. 50 riders per batch, including support staff, starting every 5 minutes to a maximum venue capacity of 300. Then they wait and roll out another 300 in batches of 50. Total 900 riders per day. 

Trail running has, for the most part, fallen into a naturally grey area of management since its inception. ASA has not, yet laid claim to any kind of participant licensing structure and has not formed part of the management of any official trail event other than those temporarily designated SA or World Champs qualifiers. Their investment in the sport, especially in the qualifying events and top racing talent, is negligible. Trail runners representing South Africa on a global level must be self-funded. 

ASA has made the choice to halt all running activities for the time being, and whether this applies to trail racing is the heated debate. We spoke to a source at World Athletics (WA, previously IAAF) for insight on both the global standard, and the relevance of ASA in this context.  

“Trail running can, by most measures, be considered a discipline of the sport we refer to as “athletics”. It’s described as such in the WA Constitution; there is a WA Technical Rule on “Mountain and Trail Running”; the vast majority of national teams at Trail World Championships are WA-affiliated national athletics associations. 

However, this doesn’t mean that WA or any of its affiliated national athletics associations own the sport. If somewhere in the world a guy puts on a road race, finds the money to invite star athletes, and gets permits to shut down roads by his city council… it’s not that the event automatically falls under the legal jurisdiction of the national athletics association for that country.

The same logic applies to trail races.  It’s not that a country’s national athletics association has the monopoly over the sport.   Proof of this could be in the Otter Trail Runs most recent decleration of being back in business.

However, it does happen sometimes that – to issue a permit – a government requires an organiser to be affiliated to / authorised by that country’s National Athletics Association. This is because in some legal systems, sports bodies (such as National Olympic Committees, sports confederations, national governing bodies for a particular sport; etc.) are seen as quasi-governmental agencies. So you have a part of the government that requires other parts of the government to be on board. This is prevalent in countries where sport is considered a “social good” that should be taken care of by the public sector.

Nobody is exactly sure of the situation in South Africa. In theory, even if the organiser of a trail race obtains a permit from a park conservancy authority could the National Athletics Association stop that from happening? 

There is room for interpretation of the law, but it would be walking on dangerous ground given the cost and possible reputational damage of an event that faces a late cancellation. In short, ASA should either confirm trail running as an independent sport, separate from track and field, road running and cross country, or should engage proactively with race organisers who can undoubtedly produce strategic Covid-19-Friendly event management protocol. 

Time will tell.  

Words Kim Stephens