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Cape Town running for greatness

Several elite international athletes will participate in the Cape Town Marathon this Sunday, bringing the organisers closer to realising their vision of the event becoming one of the “world majors” alongside the renowned New York, Boston, Chicago, London, Berlin and Tokyo marathons.

Kenyans William Kibor Koitile, who won last year’s Sydney Marathon, and his compatriots Josphat Kamzee Jepkopol (winner of Taiwan’s Taipei Marathon in 2012 and 2013), Beatrice Jepkemboi Toroitich (who came sixth in last year’s Toronto Marathon) and Henry Kipsigei Chirchir (winner of this year’s Hannover Marathon) are among the thousands of runners who will compete in the 42.2km marathon, along a route that includes tourist attractions, such as the Company Gardens, the Bo-Kaap, the Parliament buildings, the Castle of Good Hope, District Six, the V&A Waterfront and Table Bay.

They will be joined by various elite Ethiopian marathoners, including Goitetom Haftu Tesema, winner of the 2013 Warsaw Marathon, Dereje Yadete Woldegiyorgis, who took third place in this year’s Stockholm Marathon, and Netsanet Achamo Abeyo, winner of the 2012 Mumbai Marathon. South African Olympians Irvette van Zyl, Tanith Maxwell and Coolboy Ngamole will also compete.

Former South African long-distance runner Elana Meyer is an ambassador for the event, and has worked hard at putting it on the international calendar. She told the Mail & Guardian that one of the criteria for the International Association of Athletics Federations to award gold label accreditation to a marathon is that it has to attract athletes from five different countries who have achieved specific times.

“We can’t just get athletes from Kenya and South Africa – we need a top-class elite field that includes men who have run 2:10 and women who have run 2:28,” she explained.

“This is just one of the criteria that need to be met – there are other criteria too, like full road closures and doping control tests. We obviously can’t achieve everything at once, but if everything goes according to plan and the international athletes we have contracted do start the race on the day, then we will have fulfilled the elite field requirement.”

Initiated in September 2007, the marathon was first organised by Western Province Athletics (WPA) under the umbrella of a corporate sponsorship agreement with Athletics South Africa.

It yielded some of the fastest times in South Africa, including Olympic and World Championship qualifying times, and steadily began to attract a larger field of runners. In 2010 WPA brought the City of Cape Town on board as a sponsor and, according to Meyer, whose co-ambassador is former Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, the rest could be history.

Looking for cities
“There are 10?million marathon runners around the world – these are people who run marathons and look for cities in which they can run them,” she explained. “We want to establish this as a global event that will attract them and that can stand alongside New York and London, which attract 40 000 to 50 000 athletes at a time,” she said.

“We believe this is possible – last year we had 1 700 runners. This year we have just under 5 000 runners from 52 different countries.”

Said Pienaar: “Every year many South African runners travel abroad to run a major city marathon and now the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon gives local and international runners an opportunity to test themselves in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Our aim is to be the leading city marathon in Africa over the next two to three years and a ‘must-run’ marathon for runners all over the world.”

The obvious question that comes to mind is whether the Comrades and Two Oceans marathons are not “international enough”. “The Comrades and Two Oceans are not distances that are run anywhere else in the world,” explained Meyer. “They are truly uniquely and great South African events. The standard international marathon distance is 42.2km and our aim is to achieve iconic status for the Cape Town Marathon in that space.”

According to Meyer, this could also help return South Africa to its marathon-running heyday. “Traditionally we had great marathon runners – runners like Willie Mtolo [who won the New York Marathon in 1992]. In the last two decades we’ve only had about four to five on that level. I believe it’s important for us to create a platform for South African athletes to compete [so] we can develop their talent.

“Apart from just developing runners by building them up, we also need to offer them events in which they can run as professional athletes and be rewarded.”

Prize money
Headline sponsor Sanlam has forked out R1.6?million, of which the winner will take home R265 000. “This is a competitive prize purse,” said Meyer. “It may not be as big as, say, the London Marathon – but it’s competitive and there’s prize money for the first 10, with the runner finishing in 10th place receiving R10 000. Athletics South Africa has also put up prize money for South Africans who excel.”

The marathon – which also doubles up as the South African Marathon Championships for this year – starts at 7.30am on Sunday at the Cape Town Stadium, where it will also end, with a cut-off time of eight hours.

The president of WPA, Jakes Jacobs, said he expects South African athletes to fare well on the day. “The inclusion of the SA Marathon Championships in this prestigious event will contribute another dimension to the race, with the best South African marathon elite athletes participating,” he said.

“WPA believes that the top South African contenders will be invigorated by the international field and will achieve the best possible times for themselves and the spectators of Cape Town.”

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