'I'm disappointed because we wanted to win a medal for our country' - Elroy Gelant
Updated: Aug 16, 2021
For the first time since readmission, South Africa returned from an Olympic Games without winning an athletics medal. The disappointment of finishing outside the top forty and below neighbours Namibia and Botswana on the athletics medals table, has sparked a furious debate about the state of a sport which had enjoyed the honour of being the only code to win a medal in Beijing, when Khotso Mokoena's silver medal saved the nation the embarrassment of failing to win a single medal. And while athletes have come in for criticism from some quarters, Elroy Gelant says conditions were difficult.
"It was a really difficult race, especially taking the conditions into consideration," said the only South African man to have finished the #Tokyo2021 Olympic Marathon. Gelant's 2:16:43 earned him 34th place while Stephen Mokoka and Desmond Mokgobu threw in the towel. "It was very, very humid. That's the main factor that we actually struggled with," explained the two-time Olympian.
The result in the men's race mirrored that of the women's race where Irvette van Zyl also dropped out leaving Gerda Steyn's 15th place as Team SA's best performance over 42,2km in Sapporo. Unlike Steyn who started slowly worked her way up through the field to produce a credible Olympic debut, Gelant and Mokoka went with the early pace set by defending champion and eventual gold medalist Eluid Kipchoge of Kenya.
"The first 25km we were up there with the leading guys but just after 28km the conditions just started to get a little bit more difficult in terms of the heat. It was difficult to breathe," he said of the weather which was over 26 degrees at 83% humidity on race day. That 30 men failed to finish the race with the slowest of the 76 finishers suffering home in 2 hours and 44 minutes, shows just how oppressive the weather was.
And because most South African distance runners train in the dry heat of the Highveld altitude, it seems humidity is their greatest enemy. This is made evident by the fact that outside of Josia Thugwane's gold at Atlanta 1996, only Hendrick Ramaala (12th at Sydney 2000) has managed to come close to a top 10 finish. And while Gelant's determination to finish what he started is commendable it does mean that the Olympic Marathon continues to be a source of dejection for Team SA's men.
"We said from the start that our goal is to get a medal for South Africa and we did try," was the heartfelt assessment from a man who reached the 5 000m final at Rio 2016. "I'm happy to finish the race. I didn't want to not finish the marathon at the Olympic Games but still I'm disappointed because I know what out goals were. We wanted to for a medal for our country and we didn't achieve that," he concluded.