Marathon road to Paris: Elroy still hoping to make the cut

Elroy Gelant - still hopeful for his ticket to Paris. Photo: Stephen Granger

Four South African athletes who have qualified for the Paris Olympic Marathon in August have been included in the initial squad following the SASCOC announcement last week, but just twelve weeks ahead of the race, the current national marathon champion has been left with little more than uncertainty at best.

The Hollywood Athletics Club trio, Stephen Mokoka, treble Olympian, Irvette van Zyl, and exciting newcomer, Cian Oldknow, join Gerda Steyn as the South African quartet who met the strict time qualification criteria within the designated window and have been included in the squad who have their places confirmed.

Elder stateman of South African distance running, Stephen Mokoka. Photo – Stephen Granger

These athletes are now able to focus every fibre of their physical and mental preparation on racing 42,195km through the streets of Paris on 10 or 11 August.

Elroy Gelant, however, has been on a rollercoaster ride of emotions as the possibility of making the cut on ‘world-ranking’ basis after narrowly missing the 2 hr 08 min 10 sec mark in Seville, Spain, in February (he clocked 2:08:56), morphed into probability after his win at the ASA Marathon Championships in Durban before plummeting to doubtful after an unforeseen circumstance shortly before the final ‘Road to Paris’ list was announced by World Athletics on 12 May.

Two years ago, World Athletics published a media release which charted what they believed would be an equitable algorithm for Olympic Marathon qualification. Olympic qualification, particularly in the marathon, was to be balanced 50-50 between outright time-based qualification and world ranking, which would take into account other factors, including performance in conditions and on courses not conducive to fast times.

A third option to qualify for one of the 80 available ‘quota’ positions in each of the men’s and women’s marathons was through the ‘universality’ principle, which makes provision for countries for which no athlete has qualified for any event to select a single athlete for one of the 100m, 800m or the marathon.

Elroy Gelant races to a personal best marathon in Seville, agonisingly close to the Olympic qualifying time. Photo – courtesy Elroy Gelant

What transpired was that the number of athletes who met the qualifying time (70) was significantly greater than had been originally estimated and more universality requests were received for the marathon (11) than ever before. That left no space at all for athletes to achieve Olympic marathon qualification through world ranking alone (in absence of time-based criteria), something clearly not anticipated by the world governing body.

Unlike track competition where times achieved in whatever venue are closer to global absolutes, marathons take place on a variety of courses in differing conditions and the domination of time-based Olympic qualifiers is tough those athletes who may lack easy access to fast courses such as Berlin and Valencia and who have performed well in national or continental championships.

But information this week that World Athletics anticipates that additional slots could be offered to world-ranking athletes, upgrades Gelant’s doubtful status at least back to possible.

“World Athletics is currently in discussions with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) around the allocation of Universality Places for the marathon at this year’s Olympic Games in Paris,” said World Athletics’ Director of Communications, Jamie Fox. 

“The principle around Universality Places is embedded in the Olympic Games…to increase the diversity of participating nations at the Games… including…nations with traditionally small delegations. Universality athletes are only allowed entry in the 100m, in the 800m and the marathon (which has the greatest depth with a quota of 80).”

Fox pointed out two possible ways for higher-ranking athletes, such as Gelant, to gain entry to the Olympic Marathon. “The deadline for universality applications from National Olympic Committees (NOCs) in the marathon was 23 April,” Fox explained. “If the NOCs wanted to protect their right to a universality entry, these countries had little alternative but to apply for a place in the marathon. 

“However, it is likely that a number will soon confirm a preference for a universality entry in the 100m.  Upon receipt of which, World Athletics will be able reallocate these places, if room in the quota allows.”

The fact that the marathon races are scheduled on the final two days of the Games presents a second possibility. “We are in negotiations with the IOC to try and find a solution that will allow next best ranked athletes in the marathon to enter the Village at a later stage,” Fox continued. “They could possibly replace athletes from the same NOC who have finished their competition, thus not affecting the overall athlete quota.”

While Gelant’s emotions may be on a roller-coaster, his performances of late have been anything but.  At a young 37 years, the George-born and Potchefstroom-based athlete is in the form of his life.

Elroy Gelant in the lead with Kenyans Vincent Langat (right) and Francis Abong, approaching 9km at Absa RUN YOUR CITY CAPE TOWN 10K. Photo – Mark Sampson

In a heady sequence of distance running excellence, Gelant placed second to Kenyan Vincent Langat and ahead of national 10km champion, Precious Mashele, in the Run Your City 10km series opener in Gqeberha on 7 April.

Eleven days later Gelant finished second to world-class Adrian Wildschutt in the 5000m at the ASA Track and Field Championships, less than two weeks before his winning the ASA Marathon Championship in Durban, his time of 2:09:32 improving Lesotho athlete, Tebello Ramakongoana’s 2023 race record by 38 seconds. Ramakongoana dipped under the Olympic Qualifying time by 1 second in Osaka in February to claim the 70th and final time-based qualification into the Olympic Marathon.

Perhaps the best of all came at the Cape Town Run Your City 10km just ten days ago. In a stacked field where luminaries such as Stephen Mokoka, Precious Mashele and Melikhaya Frans failed to make the top ten, Gelant took charge of the race from the start, eventually finishing just three seconds back of Langat in 27:54 – his first ever 10km under 28 minutes.

Gelant, who represented South Africa at the Rio Olympics in 2016 (5000m) and in Japan in 2021 (Marathon), remains positive, both in respect of his current form and of racing in Paris. “I’ve been on a new training regime, based on lower intensity high mileage, and it has paid off for me,” Gelant explained.

Elroy Gelant – in the form of his life. Photo – Mark Sampson

“I feel positive that I can compete for a medal at the Olympics if I’m able to earn qualification. But while staying positive, it’s hard to keep focus on my preparation without the certainty of competing in Paris.”

Gelant’s current world ranking in the marathon places him second in line (82nd) to qualify for Paris via the world-rankings behind 2:08:44 marathoner, Chilean Hugo Catrileo, and ahead of the third-ranked American, CJ Albertson, and twice top five finisher at the Commonwealth Games Marathon, Australian Liam Adams.

The Americans, in particular, are kicking up a storm and placing significant pressure on the world body for the apparent down-grading of world-ranking athletes, which left Albertson (and the US Army’s Leonard Korir, who placed third at the US trials and would likely be chosen ahead of Albertyn) on the sidelines.

Athletics South Africa are 100% behind Gelant and are working behind the scenes to do whatever possible to ensure their national champion makes it to Paris.

 “We are busy with discussions to make sure Elroy goes with the team,” confirmed ASA Road Commission chair, Enoch Skosana.

While several players are doing what they can to secure Gelant’s participation in Paris, others are pulling out all the stops to ensure that those four athletes already chosen for the marathon team fly the flag with pride and achieve their best possible races in the French capital.

Cian Oldknow – exciting marathon newcomer in the South African team. Photo – courtesy Hollywood Athletics

“It is really a great honour to have four athletes from the Hollywood Athletics Club be selected for Olympic Games in the Marathon,” said HAC manager, Manfred Seidler. “With Stephen Mokoka, Cian Oldknow and Irvette van Zyl flying the flag for South Africa and Rutendo Nyahora from Zimbabwe, it shows the club is doing something right to be able to attract athletes of such calibre.”