R10m riding on ali the pigeon

WHEN a cheer reverberated around the Sun City Superbowl late last Saturday afternoon, it wasn't in anticipation of a world-famous artist taking to the stage, a beauty pageant winner being announced or even for the Australian Open, which was playing out its final stages on big screens scattered throughout the arena.

No, the cheers from the 10000-strong crowd were reserved for Ali the pigeon. Mind you, Ali is not just any ordinary pigeon.

Now in its 13th year, the Million Dollar Pigeon Race is regarded as the Olympics of the sport and with R10million up for grabs, there's a lot riding on the event.

"But is it really a sport?" I ask race director Zandy Meyer.

"Most definitely it's a sport. I compare it to horse racing whereby animal competes against animal in identical circumstances," Meyer says.

Pigeon racing can be traced as far back as the year 220 but it was during the 19th century that the sport took hold in many European countries, which perhaps explains the 600-odd pigeon fanciers from Germany who attended the weekend event.

Altogether 33 countries were represented, with their flags proudly draped over bannisters.

From early morning they arrived at the Superbowl where various companies have erected stalls related to the pigeon-racing industry.

Anything, from the latest in electronic tagging to medicine if your pigeon is suffering from diarrhoea, is available.

Pigeon racing is an unusual sport and it seems to attract an unusual following.

From the nearly 2m blonde from Germany - complete with 15cm stilettos - and a nicely tanned midriff, to the English lad decked out in the colours of the Union Jack, his muscled arms heavily tattooed, there was quite a mixture.

"In South Africa we have only about 6500 people involved in pigeon racing," Meyer says.

"Often it is a case of a son learning from his father."

Betting obviously plays a big part in the weekend events and a number of permutations are available.

Owners and spectators would gather in groups, deep in discussion, with bets placed in hushed tones via cellphones.

None would commit to exactly how much was laid out, but the stakes were obviously pretty high.

The pigeons are "liberated" from Hopetown in the Karoo early on the Saturday morning and then make the 550km flight back to the Pilanesberg where they have lived for the past nine months.

The obvious question I guess is: "How do they know how to fly home?"

"The pigeons arrive here early in May," Meyer says.

"Those that come from overseas are placed in strict quarantine until the end of June.

"During this time the birds are closely monitored, vaccinations are carried out and each pigeon is electronically tagged and registered.

"It is during these early stages that the pigeon familiarises itself with its surroundings and its loft, which is its home."

Training of the pigeons is basically the same as for any other sportsperson or animal.

Whereas a marathon runner will start at shorter distances in the build-up to the 42km event, with pigeons its flight distances will increase with time.

To start with distances are relatively short - around 15km - and as the pigeon builds up its strength and endurance so its training stints increase.

And just like any other sport, the temptation to cheat - especially with such a lot of money at stake - is very real.

Which is why Ali - who is from the Czech Republic and won first prize of R1,6million for its owner - was tested for banned substances immediately after the race.

The National Federation for Pigeon Racing in South Africa complies with the procedures and requirements of the World Anti-Doping Agency so testing for performance enhancing drugs is compulsory.

These tests are also carried out randomly on other birds taking part in the race.