OBITUARY - CHET SAINSBURY, 'MR TWO OCEANS', PASSES AWAY
February 24, 2016  

Supplied by Tracy Abrahams from WPA

OBITUARY

 

CHET SAINSBURY, 'MR TWO OCEANS', PASSES AWAY

A personal tribute by RIËL HAUMAN

 

What does one say about a man like Chet Sainsbury? Where do you start, and where do you stop?

You can say that he was Race Director of the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon for an unprecedented 27 years and essentially made the race what it is today.

And that he served as Vice-president of Celtic Harriers, Chairman of Villager Football Club and WP Road Running, and in his days on the committee of the SA Road Running Association (SARRA) played a vital role in the development of the sport on a national level.

That he had a successful career at Old Mutual and was highly competitive in everything he did, from work to running to cycling.

That he represented Western Province in the SA Marathon three times as a veteran and was team manager of WP teams on numerous occasions.

That he was a devoted family man and passionate about outdoor activities and nature.

That he was a hard but fair taskmaster who did not suffer fools gladly, a perfectionist who demanded much from those he worked with, but gave much himself.

That he was a leader who led by example and was inspiring, innovative and visionary.

That he was a loyal, caring friend to all his running and rugby partners.

But, of course, this list goes only a little way in describing the man.

To me he was a friend, a colleague in athletics, someone I admired for his dedication, his integrity, his thoroughness and the excellence he strived for in everything he did. The greatest compliment he ever paid me was when he said: "You know, we are very much alike – we both want things to be done properly."

I used to joke with him that, although he was almost five years older, I was Chairman of WP Road Running when he was still just a rugby player at Villagers. He took it good-naturedly. The thing is, while in the seventies and early eighties we as a road running committee were discussing whether we could afford to contribute R10 or R20 to the costs of each member of a WP team to a national championship race, when Chet took over, he pushed, pulled and cajoled the sport in general, and the Two Oceans in particular, into the professional era. He made Western Province the best organised road running province in the country.

And he made the Two Oceans, where he served as race director from 1981 to 2007, the world class race that it has become. When he took charge, it had 1602 finishers; in 2007 it had 6529. I have no doubt that he was the best race organiser in South Africa and on par with anyone organising the big city marathons such as New York, Chicago, Boston, London and Berlin.

Chet and I worked together in road running administration for more than thirty years, on the committees of WP Road Running and SARRA, the WP Athletics (WPA) Executive, on race organising committees, and as race referees. He shared my love of statistics and his attention to detail made it a joy to help him with the Two Oceans results books. I observed him on a national level, when with people like Mick Winn, Cliff Hopkins, Bob Norris and Lars Naylor he set up a countrywide framework in which road running functioned as the best organised section of athletics, and on a local level, where he deftly managed the explosion in clubs and races, and the increase in revenue, for the benefit of the sport he loved so much. Chet's leadership in all these activities was both exemplary and visionary.

As Chairman of WPA Road Running for fourteen years (he stood down from this position and that of Vice-chairman of WPA in June 2003) he was perhaps the most influential figure in the sport after the demise of SARRA. He was described by various people who knew him as “incredibly dedicated to his work”, “very precise”, “loyal and adaptable”, “honest”, “a man of integrity”, “passionate about excellence and order”.

“I wanted to run road running like a business. If there is a secret to my success,” he once said, “it is that I surrounded myself with successful people.” His work rate and drive became legendary and seems to have been part of him since early days: “Chet was always at the bottom of every loose scrum, ” said a colleague of his rugby days.

After his retirement from his job as Manager: Sports Sponsorship of the Old Mutual in 2003, he said, in typical Sainsbury fashion: “Now I will have more time to make [the Two Oceans] a good race.” To which Carol Sowray, then the race administrator, reacted (perhaps not without some trepidation): “I’m sure we will see more of him in the office now.”

He was a hands-on leader and before he became ill one could see him most weekends either running local road races or refereeing – and in between he measured countless courses (he was an internationally qualified course measurer). He ran his first marathon, the Peninsula, in 1978 (also his first Two Oceans) after a career of playing rugby for Villager Football Club (he was chairman of the Villagers main club for many years), and brought his marathon PB down to 2:41:47 in 1983. He ran 32 Two Oceans (best time of 3:58:01 in 1987) and 14 Comrades (including eleven silver medals in a row). When he became race director, he did not run for four years ("I was too scared to leave the finish on race day in case anything went wrong") and then ran on the Friday a few times, but found it "boring".

He organised the Peninsula Marathon in 1979 and 1980 and moved on to the Two Oceans the next year – and with the help of wife Annemarie, who was race secretary and then race administrator for a total of 21 years, took the race to international stature. (For the first few years they did the organising from their home.) He regarded its two awards in a row as the best race in South Africa as the highlight of his involvement in the Cape classic.

Chet organised numerous SA championships in Cape Town, as well as the international 100 km race held in Stellenbosch in 1989.

This is perhaps not the place to sound a critical note, but it has to be said: It is road running's great misfortune – a tragedy, even – that in the post-1994 era it could not find a way – or the willingness, even – to use Chet's skills and leadership at national administrative level.

After he left his Two Oceans position, he could not sit still and became organiser of the Landmarks Half Marathon, which, naturally, he built into a successful, popular event.

But it would be a mistake to see him only as a road running fanatic. He completed the Argus Cycle Tour 24 times (and in 2011 became the only runner/cyclist with 30 Two Oceans and 21 Cycle Tours), climbed Kilimanjaro and did most of South Africa’s hiking trails – among them the Otter numerous times. He was also a member of a bird-watching club.

Chet was awarded many honours during his career – among them life membership of Western Province Athletics (he was the first recipient of the award) and Celtic Harriers, and a merit award of the SA Amateur Athletics Union. He was granted the Civic Honours award by the Protea Sub-Council of the City of Cape Town. To honour him and Annemarie, the Two Oceans introduced the Sainsbury medal for a finish between four and five hours. Sadly, Chet never managed to win one – in 2006 he missed it by just over four minutes.

When I phoned him about two weeks before he died, he spoke mostly Afrikaans – which he had never done before – and told me about his enjoyable visit with his son to the farm of Warren Petterson in the Karoo. He sounded positive, although I could hear he was getting tired towards the end of the conversation, and said he was "hoping to make it to the Two Oceans". Last Friday he phoned me and asked if I could make a list of the seven permanent numbers he earned in races other than the Two Oceans and Comrades and how many finishes he had in each (Winelands, Voet van Afrika, Peninsula and Cape Town marathons, Red Hill 36.2 km, Puffer and Rhodes Trail Run).

Little did I realise that would be our last conversation. I was still busy working on the list when I received the news on Tuesday that he had left us.

I felt a sadness beyond words about such a splendid life that had come to an end. Chet Sainsbury was indeed a man of many parts. But first and foremost, perhaps, a Villagers and Celtics man and a Two Oceans man. Oh, yes, and a Bishops man.

Welgedaan, ou vriend, jy het 'n wonderlike wedloop gehardloop.