Stephen Mokoka, Desmond Mokgobu and Nolene Conrad will line up among the favourites for the men’s and women’s titles at the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon on Sunday morning.
With local athletes aiming to break the victory drought – no SA athlete has won the IAAF Gold Label race since it was relaunched a few years ago – we take a moment to look back on some of the best marathon performances in South African road running history.
1912 – Olympic marathon (Stockholm)
On a memorable day for South African athletics, Ken McArthur shone in hot conditions to secure the gold medal. Competing over a distance of 40.2km, with a standard marathon distance not yet determined by international officials, McArthur finished the race in 2:36:54. Delivering a double podium for the SA team, Chris Gitsham crossed the line 58 seconds later to clinch silver. Most of the entrants struggled in the brutal conditions, with only 35 of the 68 starters reaching the finish, as the SA duo won a battle of attrition.
1974 – SA Open Marathon (Port Elizabeth)
A pioneer who made multiple breakthroughs in his day, Ferdie le Grange produced his best performance at the 1974 SA Open Marathon. Three years after becoming the first man to dip under 2:20:00 on African soil, he delivered a stunning performance by clocking 2:12:47 at the national race in the Windy City. It was the seventh fastest time in the world that year, despite Le Grange being restricted from facing international opposition due to isolation.
1986 – SA Championships (Port Elizabeth)
In what has been tipped by many as the best of all the magnificent races held during a golden era of South African distance running, Zithulele Sinqe and Willie Mtolo produced an epic battle in PE. Mtolo went out hard, storming through halfway in 1:04:19, well over a minute clear of his nearest opponent. Winding it up in the second half, however, Sinqe chased him down with around two kilometres remaining to win in 2:08:04, and Mtolo held on for second place in 2:08:15. Though the race was held on an aided course, and did not count for record purposes, they remain the two fastest 42km times ever run on SA soil.
1992 – Berlin Marathon (Germany)
While a total of six South African athletes have won races which now form part of the World Marathon Majors series, David Tsebe was the first. With South Africa returning from isolation, Tsebe took immediate advantage and proved the country’s best athletes could mix it with the global elite. He crossed the line in 2:08:07, clocking the fastest time ever run by a South African athlete on a standard course. Though it would be another four years before a South African won a major championship over the classic distance, Tsebe was a pioneer, reopening a door for his compatriots which had long been sealed shut.
1996 – Olympic Games (Atlanta)
When Josia Thugwane lined up at the start of the Olympic marathon, he was not among the podium favourites. He wasn’t even tipped as the best of the SA athletes in the field. Pacing himself well, however, Thugwane found himself in a small lead group in the second half. Stunning his opponents, the diminutive South African surged shortly before the finish and maintained his lead to the line, which he crossed in 2:12:36, just three seconds ahead of Korean silver medallist Lee Bong-Ju. It was the closest marathon finish in Olympic history, with Thugwane reclaiming the title won by McArthur 84 years earlier and becoming a household name back home.
1996 – Berlin Marathon (Germany)
Though five men have achieved the feat, Colleen de Reuck remains the only SA woman to have won one of the six races in the World Marathon Majors series. De Reuck, who later earned a bronze medal at the World Cross Country Championships for her adoptive United States, delivered perhaps the best effort of her stellar career at the 1996 Berlin Marathon. Completing the race in 2:26:35, she missed out on the SA best of 2:25:15 set by Elana Meyer on the aided Boston course, but De Reuck set an official national record which still stands 22 years later.