26 Sep, 2012

Perhaps the Pick of the Bunch

Perhaps the Pick of the Bunch

In the early 1970s, a group of young South African middle distance athletes were setting the world alight, not only with their times, but also their great friendly rivalry, pushing each other to better times. Dicky Broberg, Marcello Fiasconaro and Danie Malan really were world class, and it was their misfortune to reach their athletic peak just as international condemnation of South Africa’s Apartheid policy saw the country banned from international competition.


Still, they left us with incredible memories of track racing at its best, and many consider Danie Malan the pick of the bunch. Between 1973 and 1976 he set a world record for 1000m and also set SA records for 800m, 1500m and the mile. Two of those national marks were only bettered some 30 years later, and he remains one of the greatest athletes ever produced by this country.



Danie was born in 1949 on the family farm, Salomonsvlei, just outside Paarl. He took part in athletics from a young age, beginning with the short sprints and hurdles, but his career really took off in high school, when he won the national under-17 title for 400m at the 1967 SA Junior Champs, followed by the under-19 title for 800m in 1969. After school, Danie obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture from Stellenbosch University. At that time, the Maties athletics club boasted several world-class athletes, including great friends and rivals Danie and Dicky.


Their most famous race was on 31 March 1971 at Coetzenburg, when Dicky set a SA record of 1:44.7 for 800m and Danie ran 1:45.1, the two fastest times in the world that year. “It was all about pride back then, to be the best in the world,” says Danie. “I had a great rivalry with Dicky, and Marcello at UCT, and there was also rivalry between the universities, especially Stellenbosch and UCT.”



“Also, in those days, to get Springbok colours was a huge thing. In my second year at Stellenbosch, in 1970, I was chosen for a Springbok team for the first time and toured overseas, competing in Greece, Germany, France, Belgium and the UK. But that was the last Springbok team to go before international isolation – after that, we could only compete overseas as Maties students, which is why most of my overseas photos are in Maties colours.”


Unfortunately, Danie picked up a leg injury at the end of 1971, so didn’t compete in the 1972 summer track season, but interestingly, later that year he ran and won the Peninsula Marathon in Cape Town, clocking 2:32. “I always considered the road just training for the track. My coach believed in us building up slowly with long distance training in the winter, so I was running 35-plus kays and then got into the marathon. I was actually making fun of it at first, but suddenly I was alone in front. With four miles to go I hit the wall and I was dead at the end!”



Danie’s greatest year came in 1973. On 27 May, he finished second to American Rick Wolhuter over 800m in Los Angeles, setting a new SA record of 1:44.5. A month later, in Munich, he broke the 1000m world record on 24 June, running 2:16.0 to improve the mark from 2:16.2, held jointly by J?rgen May of East Germany and West Germany’s Franz-Josef Kemper, which had stood since 1965. Just two weeks later in Zurich, on 6 July, he beat European champion Yevgeniy Arzhanov over 800m in probably the race of his life. Then later that year he beat 800m world record holder Marcello Fiasconaro in a pulsating 800m at the SA Games in Pretoria. “I was really on top in 1973, and ran some of my best races that year, but the greatest moment of my career was looking up at the clock in the Olympic Stadium and realising I had broken the world record.”


In 1975, Danie broke the SA record for the mile, running 3:54.60 in Stellenbosch, and in 1976 he broke the SA record for 1500m in Zurich, while on honeymoon with Mildie in Europe, running 3:35.98. That meant he now held every national record from 800m to the mile, bit it also signalled the end of his track career. “While we were in Switzerland, we heard that South Africa had been kicked out of international competition completely. I appreciated it very much when the stadium announcer said, ‘Danie Malan of South Africa, always welcome in Zurich,’ but we were now out completely.”


Danie announced his decision to retire from competitive athletics and focus on farming, saying, "Now that I've lost what little international competition kept me going, there's no reason to stay on." He continued to run, including finishing fourth overall in the 1978 SA Cross Country Champs and helping the Western Province team win the team title, but his track days were over.



These days, Danie still runs regularly, doing 40 to 60 minutes on the mountain next to his farm, although he says it is difficult to fit in running in the busy summer months. “I also did triathlon in the 90s – my swimming wasn’t so great, but then I don’t know any runners who can really swim! I went to the Masters Triathlon World Champs three times, as well as the Master Duathlon World Champs once, where I came fifth in my age group.”


Danie and Mildie have four children, and all of whom are road runners. Sons Wynand and Philip help him work the family farm, which produces fruit, table grapes and dairy products and has been owned by the Malan family since 1837, while daughters Helen-Elise and Barbara also work in the fruit industry. He is still in touch with great friends Dicky and Marcello, both of whom live in Johannesburg, and still passionately watches athletics, although he is disappointed by the standard of South African athletics at the moment. “I think we’ve got huge talent in this country, but it needs to be managed properly, and unfortunately the administration of athletics in this country has not been good in recent years.”


When asked how he thinks the athletes of his generation would fare today, Danie says, “We ran on cinder and clay tracks, and didn’t use the supplements and other products that today’s athletes have, but we were so motivated. I think we would do very well today!”



Danie’s PB’s and SA Records

800m: 1:44.5, 1973 (SA record till 2000)

1000m: 2:16.0, 1973 (World record till 1974, SA record till 2007)

1500m: 3:35.98, 1976 (SA record till 1981)

Mile: 3:54.60, 1975 (SA record till 1981)


Danie’s SA Titles

1974 Open Champs: 800m

1975 Closed Champs: 800m

1975 Open Champs: 800m & 1500m