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Potchefstroom, THE training centre of the moment

Philippe BernesLasserre (AFP)

19 January 2001 - Potchefstroom, an average sized town located in the middle of the South African highveld, is becoming a very fashionable destination for Europe’s elite athletes, who emigrate south as soon as European winters set in.

Romanian Gabriela Szabo (5000m Olympic champion and 1500m Olympic bronze medallist in Sydney), Great Britain’s Kelly Holmes (800m Olympic bronze medallist) and the Czech Republic’s Jan Zelezny (triple javelin Olympic champion 1992/1996/2000) can all be counted amongst the regular visitors to Potchfestroom. The town’s 100,000 residents are getting used to seeing groups of athletes jogging along the sleepy green avenues in the early evening as the sun sets and the temperatures lower.

In January of this year, "Potch", as the town is called locally, has already been host to Finnish distance runners, long and middle-distance runners from Denmark, practically the entire Polish athletics team, as well as many British and French athletes.

Grass track

In total, almost 1100 athletes are expected to pass through the town this year, approximately 300 more than in 2000, 600 more than in 1999 and this mostly because of Jean Verster, a fairly good South African distance runner in the 1990’s, who has launched this trend.

Verster, who has run in several international meetings and still takes part in cross country meetings in Europe, most particularly in France, forms friendships wherever he goes and invites athletes to spend winters with him. Those invited return, and bring with them their compatriots, and so, a tradition is created.

Situated 150km south-west of Johannesburg, Potch, also has other advantages.

This conservative town, former capital of the Transvaal Republic (1857-1902), can boast of an old and renowned Afrikaans University which is equipped with state of the art sport machinery and can claim to be the historic heart of South African Afrikaaner sporting excellence.

To cap it off, Potch also has an extremely rare grass athletics track "of a standard that I have never seen anywhere else" enthuses Kelly Holmes. "It’s like running on a real track but without the impact." The Britain is currently in her sixth training session here and is looking to buy a house as Gabriela Szabo has already done.

Competition at the top

Obviously it is warmer (Southern Hemisphere) during January in Potch than sites in Font-Romeu (France) or Davos (Switzerland). In addition, travelling home from Potchefstroom, one can avoid the jet lag Europeans suffer when training in places like Boulder or Alburquerque (USA), which "spoils the benefits of altitude training for several days" according to the great hope of French middle-distance running, Mehid Baala, who placed 4th in the 1500m final in Sydney.

Set at 1500m altitude, Potchesftroom "is high enough to benefit endurance runners, but not too high for explosive runners, like sprinters", boasts Verster. The South African has his sights set high, and wants to seduce a new clientele, in addition to track and field athletes. He has almost finalised the arrangements for a visit from an English football club

Foreigners are not the only ones to benefit from the Potch set up: marathon runner Josia Thugwane (1996 Olympic champion) and young 800m hopeful Lucky Radebe have spent time here.

Verster dreams of having the area recognised by the country’s sporting authorities as a national training centre for excellence. Unfortunately his plans will not see the light immediately as another centre is already planned for Belfast (Northeast) at 2100 metres, and which will accommodate 60-100 athletes from the end of 2001.