Updated: June 7, 2016

South African marathon runners must be ready to put up a fight in Rio in August, according to veteran athlete Hendrick Ramaala, if they hope to achieve the nation’s first top-10 finish over the classic 42km distance at the Olympics in 20 years.
Since Josiah Thugwane won gold at the Atlanta Games in 1996, no South African athlete has finished among the top 10, with Ramaala coming closest when he finished 12th in the Sydney 2000 marathon.
In the women’s event, no SA runner has finished in the top 30 since Colleen de Reuck took ninth place at Barcelona 1992.
“Everything changed the day Josiah Thugwane won the gold medal… in Atlanta,” Ramaala said on Tuesday.
“His performance made us believe that we ‘owned’ the marathon and that, because we are South African marathoners, anything can happen on any day. We soon got a rude awakening.”
Ramaala, who is now head coach of the Nedbank Running Club’s marathon squad, qualified to compete at a record fifth Olympics in Rio after breaking the SA record in the Over-40 age group when he clocked 2:17:12 at last year’s Cape Town Marathon, but he was not selected for the national team as numerous athletes achieved faster performances during the window period.
He was delighted, nonetheless, as two of the men based at his camp in Joburg – Sibusiso Nzima and Lungile Gongqa – were selected for the team, along with three-time Hannover Marathon winner Lusapho April.
The women’s team for the Games includes in-form Irvette van Zyl, full-time civil engineer Christine Kalmer and marathon rookie Lebo Phalula.
While all three men had dipped under 2:12:00 in a hard-fought qualifying contest, and all three women had gone under 2:34:00, their personal bests were well outside the fast times being produced by the top East African runners who were expected to dominate both races in Rio.
Ramaala nonetheless believed the SA contingent had the ability to make their presence felt, though he warned they needed to be prepared for a tough tactical battle at the Games.
“A factor that plays a definite role at the Olympic Games is the weather,” he said.
“In most instances the athletes run in hot, very humid conditions which means that it is not the fastest runner who wins but the cleverest.”
Ramaala, who won the 2004 New York Marathon, hoped both athletes from his stable would be able to hold their own against the global elite on their Olympic debuts, but he urged them not to be over-confident about their chances.
“It is the first time that they will be competing at the Games, and my advice to them is not to go out there and expect to win,” he said.
“I just want both of them to run to the best of their abilities, then whatever happens, happens.”
Having no real external pressure would work in their favour, Ramaala believed, as they were not considered among the medal contenders and could fly under the radar, as Thugwane did 20 years ago.
“What will help them is the fact that there will be no real expectations for them to perform.
“Who knows, one of them might just be able to get a top 10 finish, but as their coach I would be happy with a top 20.”