Rewriting the history books - The Elana Meyer story
1991 was a year of much excitement in South African sport, in particular in athletics. Firstly and very importantly, the Unity Talks between the SAAAU (South African Amateur Athletics Union – the “established” Union) and SAACON (South African Athletics Congress - the “non established” body) were well under way to pave the way for South African athletics to be governed by one, unified, body. The talks were crucial to the sport as the outcome would have an impact on South Africa’s participation at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Unification would mean that South Africa would be competing at the greatest global sporting extravaganza for the first time since the country was banned from the Games in 1964.
The end result saw South Africa competing in Barcelona and few will forget Elana Meyer’s lap of honour with Ethiopia’s Derartu Tulu after battling with the Ethiopian in that epic 10 000m. Although Elana had to settle for silver, the mere fact that the she was at the Games and won a medal, was huge achievement for her.
Besides the Unity talks there was more history being made in 1991. South Africa witnessed the birth of the incredible Engen Grand Prix Summer Series (at that time Engen was still known as Mobil before it become Engen in 1993). The Series was a huge shot in the arm to the sport of athletics, pitting the best of South Africa against each other, offering huge prize money, but also bringing international competition to SA shores for the first time in decades (leaving aside the “rebel tours”).
There were four meetings in the Mobil (Engen) Series, but one Elana Meyer would compete in only two. These meetings were in December and she, just like many other South Africans, was keeping a watchful eye on the possibility of competing in Barcelona- so her racing was planned to the ’T’. Meyer lined up in the 5000m in Port Elizabeth to chase the 5000m World Record held by Norway’s Ingrid Kristiansen. The record stood at 14:37.33. Elana tried gamely but in the end was hampered by a lack of competition. Her solo 14:50.43 was still an incredible run.
Next up was the 10 000m in Cape Town on 23 December. At the beginning of 1991, Ingrid Kristiansen held six world records, in the 5000m, 10 000m, 10km, 15km and the half marathon (21.1km) Elana had already wrestled away the 15km record by running 46.57 in Cape Town on 2 November. Where the 5000m world record was hampered by a lack of competition, the 10 000m was a different story. Elana would face Colleen de Reuck…… and a howling South-Easter. It seemed that fate was against her. If it wasn’t a lack of quality opposition, it was difficult weather conditions. In Cape Town the South-Easter is known as the Cape Doctor as it howls through the City Bowl leaving the then Green Point Stadium very much exposed as the wind roars down Table Mountain into the city below. De Reuck set the pace in the early laps. But at half way, with the World Record pace dropping, Elana took control and surged away for the remaining twelve and a half laps of the 25 lap race.
While the World Record was out of reach, Elana still had her eyes set on a fast time. The African Record in the 10 000m had been set by Kenya’s Delilah Asiago earlier in the year. The crowd were aware that something special was happening as Elana’s lap times were getting quicker and quicker and in particular in the final four laps. When crossed the line in 31:33.46, she had taken 7.10seconds off the African Record!
When the Unity Talks almost stalled during the Mobil (Engen) Summer Series it appeared as though Elana and other Olympic hopefuls would not be going to Spain after all. But the two parties (SAACON and SAAAU) were able to resolve their issues, clearing the way for Team South Africa to head off to Barcelona in July of 1992.
And Elana was making sure her preparations were on song. She was arguably one of the favourites for a Gold Medal. Victory in the 3000m in Dakar in the Unity Games in April and in Stockholm in the DN Galan Meeting in the 5000m in July saw Elana well prepared for the big showdown on 8 August. And what a showdown it was…
History in Barcelona
It was always going to come down to the devastating finishing kick of Ethiopia’s Derartu Tulu against the relentless front running of Elana Meyer in the women’s 10 000m Olympic final in the Montjuic Stadium in Barcelona. And true to form, Tulu went into the lead half way through the final, but Elana regained control shortly thereafter. Lap after lap Elana tried to burn off the fast finishing Ethiopian. And lap after lap Tulu stuck to her like glue – until just before the bell, Tulu accelerated past Elana to go on to take the gold medal.
But history was made. Elana had become the first South African to win an individual medal at the Olympic Games since 1960. And more was to come. In one of the most poignant moments in Olympic history, Elana and Tulu embraced each other and went on a lap of honour round the stadium.
Half Marathon Glory
Elana seemed to love the half marathon. Two years after that epic battle in Barcelona, Elana lined up in Oslo, Norway for the World Half Marathon Championships. One hour, 8 minutes and thirty six seconds later, she had won the global title. Three more times she would represent South Africa at these championships, finishing second (1998), 7th (1999) and 6th (2001).
But it was her half marathon in a freezing Tokyo on 15 January of 1999 that was arguably her greatest 21,1km race ever. It resulted in a World Record and saw Elana become the first ever female athlete to break 67minutes for the 21.1km. She clocked 66:44 in 5 Degrees Centigrade, beating Kenya’s Esther Wanjiro by 5 seconds. It took ten years before that time was bettered by Mary Keitany (66:36) at the 2009 World Half Marathon Championships. Elana clearly had a love affair with the half marathon – particular in Japan. From 1993 to 2002, she would race in 21 international half marathons. She won 12 of these races, 10 of which were won in 14 Japanese races.
Elana's 2:25:15 clocking at the 1994 Boston Marathon represents her best effort over the 42,2km distance. She has an exemplary record in International Marathons. Twice she finished runner up in Boston, as well as a third place finish (when she ran 2:25.15). Twice Elana took third place in Chicago and once 5th in London.
Elana Meyer has truly been an ambassador for South African Athletics with a career that few could ever come close to. She continues to represent the nation, this time though through her efforts in Edurocad (an endurance running development academy) and her involvement in South Africa’s only Gold Label Marathon - the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon.
3000m: 8:32.00 (National Record)
5000m: 14:44.05 (National Record)
10 000m: 30:52.51 (National Record)
10km: 31:13 (National Record)
15km: 46:57 (A former World Record)
21.1km: 1:06:44 (National Record)
Manfred Seidler has been in the media industry in athletics since 1994 having managed the media around a number of SA Track and Field Championships, SA Cross Country Championships and Road Championships. He also was the media account director on the hugely successful Engen Grand Prix Summer Series from 1995 to 1997 before being head hunted by the Television company Octagon CSI. Manfred founded the athletics TV Show Athletics Alive (later to become Engen Gijima) until the sponsor withdrew from the sport in 2003. During that time Manfred had the privilege of traveling the world and meeting and interviewing some of the best athletes in the world while he chased South Africa’s finest around the globe. Manfred resurrected Athletics Alive in 2011 on behalf of SABC and produced the show until 2016. He has covered three Olympic Games (2008/12/16 - was in London for 2012), the Commonwealth Games (2006/10/14/18) and was able to attend three World Championships. Manfred is now an accomplished Media Consultant with Athletics his biggest focus - and still his biggest passion.