Gritty Gelant and macho Mokoka no match for Kenya's marathon giant

Team SA end their Tokyo Games campaign with three medals

Stephen Mokoka in action in Sapporo.
Stephen Mokoka in action in Sapporo.
Image: REUTERS/Feline Lim

SA’s last hope of a fourth medal at the Tokyo Olympics faded quietly when Stephen Mokoka quit a little past the halfway mark of the men’s marathon on Sunday morning.

Mokoka, fifth at the 2019 world championships, and Elroy Gelant had stuck determinedly to the lead group for more than half of what turned out to be a brutal race with 30 runners failing to finish. The third South African, Desmond Mokgobu, was never in contention. 

Mokoka burst into the lead briefly to take the field through halfway in 1hr 05min 13sec, but when Kenya’s world record-holder and defending champion Eliud Kipchoge attacked soon after that, the SA duo were unable to punch back.

Gelant slipped off the pace quickly, and Mokoka, empty after his macho antics, was reduced to walking not long afterwards before pulling out.

Kipchoge sped up over the second half of the race to cross the line in 2:08:38 and win by 1min 20sec ahead of Abdi Nageeye of the Netherlands and Belgium’s Basir Abdi.

Gritty Gelant was the only of the SA trio to reach the finish line, crossing in 34th place in 2:16:43. It was a really difficult race especially taking the conditions into consideration, he said

It was very, very humid. That’s the main factor that we actually struggled with ... Just after 28km the conditions just started to get a little bit more difficult in terms of the heat, difficult to breathe.

The men’s marathon, SA’s last chance of silverware in Tokyo, served up the most famous of gold medals in Atlanta 25 years ago when Josia Thugwane won the closest Olympic 42km tussle in history.

But that was a distant memory on Sunday. Even Team SA’s three medals from the opening week of this showpiece seemed an aeon ago.

Swimmer Tatjana Schoenmaker and surfer Bianca Buitendag had scooped silver on the fourth day of the Games, and then Schoenmaker struck gold in the 200m breaststroke on Day Seven, the first Friday of the Olympics.

From Saturday last weekend it was nine long days of vain hope, the longest medal drought since the 10 days SA waited for long-jumper Khotso Mokoena to secure the country’s only gong of Beijing 2008.

Tokyo was the first Games ever where SA men failed to medal, and the first since readmission where track and field was unable to make the podium.

Akani Simbine came the closest with his fourth spot in the men’s 100m, followed by Kyle Blignaut’s sixth in the shot put.

Elsewhere there were three fifth places — Chad Le Clos in the men’s 200m butterfly, Kaylene Corbett in the women’s 200m breaststroke and the Blitzboks, one of Team SA’s biggest disappointments.

The men’s four rowers were the other big let-down, failing to make a final where two crews they’d beaten in Lucerne in May, Romania and Italy, took silver and bronze.

Team SA mustered three eighth places — Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio in the women’s individual time trial, Alan Hatherly in the mountain bike and Michael McGlynn in the 10km open water swim.

The key to Olympic success is stocking the team with as many medal contenders as possible; normally half of them convert.

But too many of SA’s hopes didn’t fire. Defending Olympic 400m champion Wayde van Niekerk was unable to get fully race fit after his lengthy knee injury, long-jumper Ruswahl Samaai never found his form and triathlete Henri Schoeman picked up an injury shortly before the Games.

Surfer Jordy Smith pulled out the Olympics because of an injury and golfer Louis Oosthuizen, in the top three at all four majors this year, didn’t make himself available for the showpiece.

Team SA had averaged five medals a Games in the seven Olympics since readmission, and the Tokyo haul has dropped that to 4.75.

It’s an under-performance, but don’t blame only the athletes. The fault lies mostly with the sports administrators and politicians who have not delivered the support required by SA’s athletes.

The ball is in their court and Paris 2024 is beckoning.