By Riël Hauman
(26-Jun) -- When George Claassen won the Comrades Marathon on the day South Africa became a republic, running as a sport was still pure, uncomplicated and a gentleman's game. When he passed away last Tuesday, June 17, as the oldest living Comrades winner at the age of 97, the sport had changed beyond recognition – and he often lamented the fact.
George Nicolaas Claassen was born on 26 February 1917 on a farm outside Wolmaransstad and ran his first Comrades in 1960, finishing third behind Jackie Mekler and Gerald Walsh. Mekler became the first Comrades winner to go under 6 hours for the “up” run with his 5:56:32 and Claassen’s 6:34:07 was then the best time for a novice in the “up” run.
The next year Claassen, a school headmaster in the town of Middelburg, followed leader Keith Pearce in the company of Frikkie Steyn and Trevor Allen (who had won in 1952 and 1959) until Pearce collapsed from exhaustion and cramp on the outskirts of Durban. In the meantime an injured Mekler had withdrawn just after Botha’s Hill. Claassen and Steyn ran together past 45th Cutting, having shaken off Allen, but at Westridge Park Claassen drew away and the younger Steyn could not close the gap again.
Claassen reached the finish at the Beach Pavilion, just past the former finishing venue at Hoy Park, in 6:07:07, the fourth fastest ever for the ”down” run. He was then 44 years, 3 months and 5 days old – the second oldest after Wally Hayward in 1954 to take the title (Hayward was almost 46). The sturdily built Claassen ran the race in Bata canvas shoes (“tackies”).
Steyn was second in 6:09:05 and Allen third in 6:22:49. There were a record number of 98 finishers.
Typically, Claassen, who called himself “a child of the Western Transvaal [province] with its endless distances and receding horizons”, made no big fuss of his victory. That same evening he returned home the same way he came: he took the train to Standerton and from there drove his car through the night to Middelburg, where he was headmaster of Middelburg High School for seventeen years and also coached athletics. He arrived in time for breakfast and then went to the school for his day’s work.
Claassen completed the race eight more times, achieving ten medals in total and permanent number 994. His last Comrades was in 1977 at the age of sixty, when he finished in 10:14:00.
Claassen was one of five Germiston Callies runners who won the Comrades, the others being Hayward, Mekler, Mercer Davies and Alan Robb.
In 1973 he formed the Pretoria Marathon Club and was Chairman from 1974 to 1985. The George Claassen Half Marathon and 10 km are still held every January in his honour.
At the age of sixty he could still run the marathon in under 3 hours and cycled until he was 88.
The way in which athletics has been politicized and the problems brought along by the professionalism of the sport he loved saddened him. When I phoned him in his home in Bloubergstrand near Cape Town when he turned 90 to congratulate him on the special occasion, he lamented the decline in the standards of the sport. “It is a tragedy, the sport is declining everywhere, especially in the schools. But fortunately people like you and me have our wonderful memories of what it was like,” he said.
Asked about his health, Oom [uncle] George - as he was affectionately known to many - said: "My head is still right and I still live in my own house. My children are very good to me."
He leaves his sons Wynand, former Springbok rugby captain, George and Danie, and daughter Maryna (Metelerkamp), as well as thirteen grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren. His wife, Nella, passed away in 2009.
Oom George’s passing leaves a void in his family, to whom he was devoted, and among all those who knew him, but also in the South African athletics world as a whole. He was a man of principle, deeply religious, a lover of nature, gentle, wise and, until the end of his life, with a keen interest in people and life.
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Two days before the passing of George Claassen, another Comrades standout, Graeme Fraser, died at the age of 65 in Durban from motor neurone disease. Fraser, whose permanent number was 666, twice finished third behind Bruce Fordyce in the Comrades, in 1982 and 1983 – with Alan Robb also finishing ahead of him in 1982 and Gordon Shaw in 1983.
Fraser ran his two best times in these two years - 5:41:55 for the down run in 1982 and 5:46:20 for the up run in 1983. In each case he was just narrowly beaten for second place – in 1982 by 29 seconds and in 1983 by 32 seconds.
1982 and 1983 were indeed his golden years, as he also finished second to Fordyce in the London to Brighton ultramarathon on both occasions, running 5:43:13 and 5:23:29 respectively, and beating the redoubtable former champion Don Ritchie in 1983.
Fraser won four more Comrades gold medals - in 1981, 1984, 1985 and 1987 - and achieved twelve medals in total. He also won three medals in the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon, with a gold for ninth place in 1983.
PHOTO: George Claassen crosses the finish line of the Comrades Marathon in 1961, watched by Comrades founder Vic Clapham. (Photo courtesy of the Comrades Marathon Association)