|The South African Olympic Marathon Team Selections
by Riel Hauman, author of Century of the Marathon: 1896-1996
South Africa's road running selectors delivered a shock when they announced the marathon team to represent the country in the Olympic Games in Sydney. The team, which does not include Gert Thys and Colleen de Reuck, can at best be described as below par.
Thys, the fourth fastest marathoner in history, did not meet Athletics South Africa's stringent selection criteria, but it seems as if De Reuck, the quickest SA woman on a standard, non-aided course, has been unfairly treated by the national governing body.
De Reuck, who resides in Boulder, Colorado, was extremely disappointed with her omission, and threatened legal action. Both she and Thys said they would never run for South Africa again.
The duo each fell foul of one of ASA's criteria, although De Reuck disputes this. One of the criteria is that the marathoners had to qualify between September 1, 1999 and April 30, 2000, and had to run under 2:11 and 2:32. The IAAF qualifying period started on January 1, 1999, and the required times are 2:14 and 2:33.
Thys ran his 2:06:33, the fourth fastest time ever, in February 1999 and could not duplicate this since, clocking 2:11:33 in London while complaining of a liver ailment.
The other criterion was that athletes had to participate in the World Championships in Seville, if selected (or in the All-Africa Games). De Reuck, who ran 2:27:30 in Chicago, declined selection, and she said she produced a medical certificate showing that she was unable to run.
Yet, incomprehensibly, the selectors did include Johannes Maremane, who won the SA Marathon in March, but whose 2:11:15 missed the qualifying time by 16 seconds.
Critics of the selection process pointed out that De Reuck's nonselection might have more to do with her past criticism of ASA, and the fact that she seldom runs in South Africa.
Seven athletes have run faster than ASA's qualifying standards: Thys, Hendrick Ramaala (2:09:43), Josiah Thugwane (2:10:29), Makhosonke Fika (2:10:39), Simon Mphulanyane (2:10:56), Elana Meyer (2:27:17), and De Reuck.
Of the seven only three are in the team: Ramaala, Thugwane, and Meyer. Ramaala and Meyer are also in the track and field squad for the 10,000 meters.
A further eleven men met the "easier" qualifying standard of the International Amateur Athletic Federation (2:14). Two of these, 36-year-old Ezael Tlhobo (2:11:18) and Joshua Peterson (2:11:19), have been named as reserves.
ASA has a two-tier qualifying period: SA track and field athletes must achieve the IAAF "A" standard in the twelve months before the Games (which start on September 15), and then the ASA standards in the "six to eight weeks before the final athletes' entry date prescribed by NOCSA".
According to ASA Chief Executive Officer Banele Sindani, ASA decided to have "objective" criteria for selecting the team, and not employ "subjective" decisions in the selection process. He referred to the US system, where the first three in each event at the Olympic trials are selected.
But the US system has always been criticised as less than perfect, and one feels that especially in the marathon, "subjective" criteria - whatever they are - may work better in the peculiar circumstances of this very demanding event.
Although Sindani pointed out that Thys ran his time more than a year ago, and also has health problems, it remains hard to believe that any country can afford to leave a man of his caliber at home.
De Reuck has a superb record in major races. She is the only SA woman who has won a major international marathon (Berlin in 1996), was ninth in the 1992 Olympic race, and is consistently successful in the toughest races on the US circuit.
One can also argue that a marathon performance in October 1999 will have as little bearing on what the athlete will be capable of in September 2000 as a time run in February 1999. Furthermore, if the IAAF decision-makers in their wisdom set January 1, 1999 as the beginning of the qualifying period, why has ASA got to be different?
This brings one to Fika. Admittedly, his last two marathons were not impressive (he ran 2:17:47 in Seville and 2:16:27 in Boston), but why is he not even a reserve?
Joshua Peterson has impressed in local races (he recently won the Two Oceans 56KM ultramarathon), but not yet in equal measure in top international marathons - as Fika (8th in Paris last year), and even Laban Nkete (7th in Boston) have done.
And why is Thys not even a reserve?
Everyone rejoiced when Thugwane qualified, if barely, in London. With that, he surely made the selectors breathe a sigh of relief, because what would they have done if he had run, say, 2:12-something?
He now has his chance to defend his title in Sydney. "I will try my best," he said after the announcement. "I want to do it for Jacques." His coach and manager, Jacques Malan, has cancer.
"I just pray that I will be strong enough to make it if NOCSA allow me to go over with the marathon team," Malan said. He accompanied the team to Atlanta and played a tremendous role in Thugwane's success.
Whether Ramaala and Meyer will also contest the 10,000M remains to be seen. The men's marathon is run on the last day of the athletics program (October 1), with the 10,000M final on September 25 (heats are on September 22).
The women's marathon is on September 24, with the 10,000M heats on September 27, and the final on September 30.