‘The unexamined life is not worth living’.
Socrates (469-399 BC).
This is a very emotionally challenging book to review precisely because it is such an intensely personal journey. In it the author discloses details of matters which have obviously been deeply emotionally painful to him. They are ones which few people would be willing to discuss openly with others let alone to write about: his parents’ acrimonious divorce, his mother’s alcohol abuse, his loneliness when rejected by his mother, the limited contact he had with his father, the tensions and conflicts within his extended family. In writing of these, he is undoubtedly seeking to exorcise the lingering painful memories he has of them.
In many respects this is very much a South African story. Published in 2017, by which time Walter was in his ‘sixties, it tells of a white boy born into and growing up during the country’s apartheid era when all spheres of life were racially segregated: places of residence, education, work, sport and recreation. As a result, his is a life story about having lived in various designated white residential areas mainly of Johannesburg but also of Cape Town, attending white schools and a white university, being drafted into a white military unit and, in his early teenage years, taking up competitive cycling which was also racially segregated.
Ultimately, it is his career as an amateur cyclist who scaled the available heights in his chosen sport as practiced in South Africa in the1970s that lies at the heart of this book. As he tells it, it was in the white cycle sport of that time that he found the friendship, mentoring, social worth and personal recognition which was lacking in his family life. This was as a direct result of his associating with a growing circle of fellow white cyclists of similar age as well as with older cycling coaches, officials and administrators amongst whom he became increasingly comfortable as he achieved better racing results. In short, the white cycling community of the time provided the positive role models Walter felt he had previously lacked and which collectively served as his surrogate family.
His cycling achievements during the 1970s as recorded in the official history of the South African Cycling Association (SACF) were considerable. In 1971, he won the SACF junior national 10 Km. track title in Kimberley; in 1972 in Port Elizabeth he took the SACF senior 1 500 metres track title and did so again in 1976 in Bloemfontein. In 1975, however, Walter won the prestigious Paarl Boxing Day ‘25’ – an annual track event over 25 miles dating from 1897 – and with it the massive Minnaar Trophy awarded to the victor. He thus joined the elite in the country’s cycling annals.
But by the 1970s, white South African cyclists were internationally isolated. Along with South African athletes in other sports, they were excluded from competing in the Olympic Games from Tokyo 1964 onwards because of apartheid in sport. Then, in 1970 the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) extended the ban to all events held under its authority, including world championships. In effect, white South African cyclists could only compete abroad if they held foreign passports or assumed false identities. Simultaneously, foreign cyclists were prohibited from making racing visits to the country.
Historically, since colonial times, white cycling in South Africa had been modelled on the sport as practiced in Britain. The emphasis was primarily on summer track racing on large outdoor tracks with shallow bankings and spectator facilities. Cycling tracks existed in most of the larger urban centres. When Walter embarked on his cycling career, the sport was concentrated on track racing at venues in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Krugersdorp and this conurbation became a hotbed of white cycle sport with numerous strong cycling clubs. As Walter describes matters, cyclists in what was then termed the Transvaal attributed the multiple problems facing South African cycling at that time largely to the conservative and outdated attitudes of the incumbent SACF president, Cyril Geoghegan, who had held office for over a decade. Geoghegan had been a leading pre-World War II cycling champion. He was based in the then coastal province of Natal, where the sport was currently at a low ebb. Dissident cycling officials finally deposed Geoghegan and he was replaced by Jimmy Swift as SACF president in 1972, with Raoul de Villiers as his vice president. Swift was held in high esteem in white cycling circles as a medal winner at the 1952 Olympics while de Villiers was a cycling journalist on the Afrikaans-language Rapport newspaper. He was to succeed Swift as SACF president in 1975.
De Villiers is generally credited with having initiated the annual multi-stage Rapport Toer road race first held in 1973. While its route often varied, this marathon road race generally ran between Johannesburg and Cape Town and included foreign teams. It thus offered white South African cyclists a rare opportunity to test themselves against foreign opposition. Walter suggests that the introduction of this event was ultimately due to the influence of the ‘Broederbond’ – a secret Afrikaner organisation. Whatever the case, it turned the focus of white South African cyclists and cycling towards road racing and raised the possibility of their becoming professional cyclists. It was to produce new local high profile cycling stars like Alan van Heerden and Robbie McIntosh, both of whom turned professional. In 1975, the 22 year old Walter sought to gain selection for the Rapport event but was disappointed to be made only a reserve who ultimately did not participate. However, in 1976 he was awarded national ‘Springbok’ colours and competed against a visiting international team of track cyclists.
The autobiography then largely moves away from discussing cycling. Seemingly, Walter’s involvement in the sport declined during the late-1970s and the 1980s, by which time he was in his late ‘twenties and early ‘thirties and had entered the world of work. This pattern was not uncommon amongst white sportspeople at that time, particularly in sports like amateur cycling in South Africa where international isolation prevented progress beyond achieving national honours. By the time they reached their ‘thirties they had devoted themselves to family life and left involvement in sport behind.
Much of what Walter writes of his life subsequently is sketchy, often tantalisingly so: his married life; the birth of his son, Stefan, in 1989; his divorce; being a single parent; living in Britain; working there in the corporate world of finance. All these are mentioned only briefly. As he tells it, the big wake-up call came in 2003, when he was 50. He was diagnosed as having a serious heart defect requiring major surgery. This precipitated much soul-searching on his part along with consultations with other cardiologists. On further medical advice, he declined medical treatment. The trauma of this experience led to him turning his back on the corporate world and embarking on a journey of personal self-discovery. He travelled to mystical places like the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru and consulted with leading psychiatrists as well as with spiritual leaders.
He also began cycling again, initially with his by-now teenage son. Cycling had become popular again, with increasing numbers of people taking it up for both pleasure and competition. Walter rapidly got back into the swing of the sport and in 2005 at the age of 52 he took part in the mass-participation Cape ‘Argus’ tour as well as the World Masters title events in Canada. In 2006, he raced on the indoor velodrome in Manchester again in the World Masters Games. On both occasions he wore the much-prized silk national South African champion’s title jersey awarded to him back in 1972.
Having read and reflected on the book as a whole, I can but conclude that its title – Eye of the Child: Onwards, A Fulfilled Life – is one which was carefully chosen by the author. I understand Walter to imply by it that the adult is critically shaped by childhood experiences which, in his case, were decidedly traumatic. I do not take issue with this theory. However, I do think that this autobiography also implicitly reveals Walter to have repeatedly responded to the challenges he has faced throughout his life in a similar and very distinctive way. Essentially, he has always sought to confront and overcome them whereas many other people would simply have shied away and given up. This seems true of him regardless of whether they were in his family situation, in cycling competitions or in matters of personal health. Perhaps his decision to write this intensely personal book represents yet another manifestation of this particular approach to life’s challenges.
The book will be of interest to most people with a background in cycling, particularly in the South African context. Viewed in a more abstract way, it contains data which is of considerable value to both sports psychologists and sports sociologists precisely because it provides insights into the pursuit of sporting excellence. For the sports psychologist, it contains details of the importance of dedication to rigorous, often tedious, physical training coupled with the learning of sporting skills and the cultivation of the ability to tactically analyse situations and opponents. For the sports sociologist, it draws attention to the vital role played by the sporting social world immediately surrounding the athlete: to the significance of the presence of highly motivated fellow competitors along with dedicated coaches, mentors, supporters and officials as well as of enthusiastic fans and sports journalists. Together, as this autobiography reveals, they can serve to motivate athletes to achieve sporting successes despite the constraints which may exist in other aspects of their lives.
Overall, this is a testimony to the unquenchable spirit of its author. Ultimately, Walter deserves our admiration and respect for having had the courage to write so openly and honestly about so many of aspects of his personal life. In the light of this, that he succeeded so well in his chosen sport should come as no surprise.