Back on Track


It has been years since South African middle distance athletes produced solid world class performances in the 1 500m event. When most of us think of middle distance, we still remember athletes like Johan Fourie and Sydney Maree, whose times in the 80s were constantly up at the top with the rest of the world. But things have certainly changed – with three South African 1 500m athletes reaching the qualifying standard for the World Athletics Championships, taking place in Berlin from 15 to 23 August. Modern Athlete spoke to Johan Cronje, who qualified in a personal best time and who vows that this is only the beginning of exciting times in South African middle distance track running.

The second he went through the 800m mark in a time of 1:53, he knew he had it in the bag. When he crossed the 1 500m finish line on 10 June in the Thessaloniki Athletics Festival in Greece in a personal best time of 3:35.11, the 27-year-old Johan Cronje was a relieved and ecstatic man. He was relieved because the pressure of trying to qualify for the World Championships was now off and elated because he knew that his performance was just the beginning of great things. It made him believe South African middle distance running was back on the map! How right he was. Just a couple of weeks later on 28 July in Monaco, Johan did it again. He bettered his PB and finished in 3:33.63, missing the current South African record (3:33.56) by only 7-hundreths of a second. This makes him the third fastest South African over 1 500m of all time. With this time, he moves past the legendary Johan Fourie.

Nine South African 1 500m athletes have run below 3:40 this year – more than any time in one year. Three names stand out: Johan Cronje, Juan van Deventer and Peter van der Westhuizen. Juan and Peter qualified for the World Champs at an IAAF Grand Prix meeting in New York in May. Juan clocked 3:34.30 finishing second, while Peter finished fourth in 3:35.33. The IAAF ‘A’ standard for Berlin is 3:36.20. Unfortunately, Juan will most likely not be able to compete in Berlin as he picked up a stress fracture in New York. Johan continued the good form after Greece, storming ahead to win the 1 500m in Madrid, in an impressive and gutsy performance. He followed it up with his PB in Monaco. South Africa’s hopes for the World Champs now lie with Johan and Peter, two good buddies, but also big rivals on the track.

Johan describes Juan, who finished seventh in the Olympic 1 500m final last year, as “an extremely disciplined athlete,” who sets a good example for all of them. “It’s such a pity he’s injured. We usually travel together when we compete in Europe. Peter has been in Nebraska the last couple of years. We don’t see each other that often. We are all good friends, but when we are on the track, we know it’s each one for himself.”

Johan beat both his rivals at the South African National Championship where he took gold last year. “I know it’s just a matter of time before one of us shatters the SA record. It’s important for us to establish ourselves internationally. I managed this in a small way by finishing on the podium in the recent IAAF races. It helps to pave the way for the different race directors to invite us to more events,” says Johan.

He admits that his performance stands as one of the reasons that South Africans did not achieve what they were capable of in the last couple of years. “I blame myself. None of us really tried to chase good times in the past. We were a couple of good runners who always competed against each other in the local athletics season. We turned it into a tactical race where we would rather watch each other than the clock. It was all about position, tactics and who was going to win and not about chasing good times,” says Johan.

Competing internationally has changed things. “In international races there are pacemakers and you become more involved and focused on giving it your all and running your best possible time.” Johan’s coach, DB Prinsloo, agrees and says competition has played a big role in Johan’s improvement. Juan and Peter’s respective coaches also believe added distance and endurance training have helped the young athletes.

Johan is no stranger to distance training and runs 100km to 120km a week. “I have found the added distance has kept my weight stable, it has strengthened my legs and it has made me fitter.” Don’t think that Johan runs these sessions at a leisurely pace; his daily sessions are run at nothing slower than 3:30min/km. Some mornings, he will do a 25km run followed by a 12km run the next morning and another 8km run the same evening. “On the days that I do quality track work, I only run 4km to 8km in the morning. I train about three hours a day.” 

He has been with the same coach since 1997 and they have an excellent relationship. DB is a sports manager at the University of the Free State. “DB has the most confidence in my abilities, more than what I have! Ever since I was a junior, he believed that I could run under 3:30.” At home in Bloemfontein, Johan trains with athletes such as Dumisani Hlaselo (SA Junior record holder), Windy Jones and Boy Soke. Boy has Springbok colours in all three athletics disciplines; track and field, cross country and road running and more amazingly, did it in only one season.

Johan usually rests on a Sunday, and on the rare occasion that he is at home with his new wife, Claire, they have lunch at his parents’ house in Bloemfontein.

Running must be in his genes, because Johan’s mother, Sarina, and his father, Danie, were both Springbok athletes in the late 70s and early 80s. His mother competed in 800m, 1 500m and 3 000m events while his dad excelled at the 3 000m obstacle race. Johan’s brothers, Danie and Hendrik (an actor on the well known Afrikaans soapie 7de Laan), were also both eager sportsmen in their younger years. The three brothers played anything from tennis to cricket to rugby, but it was athletics that eventually found a place in Johan’s heart.

Johan’s running career started on a Friday afternoon in the Free State town of Heilbron, where he grew up. As a curious seven-year-old, he pitched up at the school’s cross country race to see what the big hype was about. A teacher saw him and encouraged him to join in. Johan borrowed a vest from a friend, pulled his shoes off and when the gun went off, he was at the front of the pack. By the time the group of boys reached the finish line, Johan was way ahead, winning the race easily. A year later, he was awarded Free State colours in cross country and shortly afterwards, in athletics.

When Johan was 16, the family moved to Bloemfontein where he attended Grey College. His first taste of international competition came in 1999 when he participated in the World Youth Championship in Poland. He finished fifth in the 1 500m. In the same year, he took another fifth position at the World Junior Championships and two years later, fifth again at the World Student Games.

He studied law at the University of the Free State, but quickly realised it demanded too many hours spent with his nose in the books. He eventually graduated with an honours degree in Industrial Psychology.

His parents and wife will be right next to the track to support their golden boy at the upcoming World Champs. They are the people he misses most when away from home. “It’s nice to stay in good hotels, have your bed made every day and have breakfast served, but I prefer to have my own space where everything around me is familiar. I am a very social guy. Weeks away without my wife, friends and family can be very lonely.”

In the last six years, Johan’s biggest obstacles to his running career have been injuries. “My injury (a stress fracture) last year just before the Olympic Games must have been one of the biggest disappointments of my life,” Johan says. In the previous Olympic Games in Athens in 2004, he reached the semi-finals. “I will never forget the moment I walked onto the track on the opening night of the Games. There was something so special about that evening; the atmosphere and the spectators wanting to see world class sport. I have not since experienced such a feeling of exhilaration.”

Johan still gets very nervous just before a race. “When I get that feeling of nervousness, I know I am ready to race. I will stop running competitively when I don’t feel it anymore. I don’t like losing. When I lose, I am usually angry at myself,” says this 70kg athlete who stands 1.81m tall.

Johan would love to establish himself amongst the top ten 1 500m athletes in the world. “I know it’s possible and I’m going to do everything within my ability to do it. At this stage in my life, sport means everything to me and there is nothing else I would rather do.” One day, after hanging up his spikes, he would like to start a financial planning business with his brother, Danie. But running will always be a part of his life. He wants to tackle a marathon or two in the future. “I don’t think I would ever line up at a race such as the Comrades, but I would definitely like to run more 10km and 21.1km races.”

His dream is to at least reach the 1 500m final at the World Champs. “Any one of the athletes in the final can win the race because it is such a tactical race. By the time it’s the finals, the competitors would already have run two hard races. That opens up the race to anyone. ”When he runs, he concentrates on staying in contact with the lead pack. “I keep telling myself; ‘don’t lose contact’. I am realistic about the World Champs, but I know I can finish in the top three – or at least break my PB.”

Fast Facts

Favourite distance: 1 500m
Best food: Braaivleis, sosaties and a Budweiser
Favourite movie: Gladiator
Favourite book: Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons
First poster on your wall: Michael Schumacher in his F1 Ferrari
Life motto: Time is everything
Dream car: Bugatti
Running heroes: Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Hezekiel Sepeng