South Africa, with a rich history in the 42km discipline, were among the pace-setters in the event in the Nineties.
David Tsebe, Xolile Yawa (both Berlin) and Willie Mtolo (New York) won major international marathons shortly after readmission, while the likes of Josiah Thugwane, Gert Thys, Ian Syster, Elana Meyer and Colleen de Reuck kept the SA flag flying, consistently holding their own against the best in the world.
Five men dipped under 2:10 between 1997 and 2002, but only Hendrick Ramaala and Thys were able to achieve the feat during an eight-year period between April 2002 and May 2010.
Over a six-month period, however, in 2010 and 2011, Stephen Mokoka and Lusapho April added their names to that list, and our runners are once again making their presence felt at a global level.
The drought was even more significant on the women’s side.
Between 1990 and 1996, Meyer, De Reuck and Frith van der Merwe all ran under 2:30, but it took 15 years for the next SA woman to break the barrier when Rene Kalmer clocked 2:29:59 in Yokohama in November 2011.
However, four of the top eight women’s performers in history – Kalmer, Tanith Maxwell, Irvette van Zyl and Annerien van Schalkwyk – have achieved their personal bests in the last three years.
While South Africans have been slowly regaining their momentum, the East Africans have taken marathon running to another level, and we now face a real struggle in raising our standards even further and finding a solution to our relative lack of depth.
April is more than five minutes faster than the next best South African, Sibusiso Nzima, this year, and his 2:08:32 career record in Hanover in May ranks him 71st in the world this season.
Van Blerk, the fastest SA woman this year after clocking 2:31:26 in London in April, is ranked 142nd in the world this season.
At the other end of the spectrum, the top 40 men in the world this year are either Kenyan or Ethiopian, and only two of the top 20 women do not hail from one of the two East African nations.
Athletes from those countries train in large groups, with regular camps attracting and creating world-class athletes.
April’s third place in New York last week proved that South Africa still has plenty of potential in the gruelling endurance event.
There needs to be a national mentality, though, with athletes and coaches sharing knowledge and feeding off each other.
Only then, by finding a balance and adopting a team mentality in an individual sport, will we have any chance of chipping away at the massive advantage held by the East African giants.