South African distance running supremo, Stephen Lesego Mokoka, is a man on an extraordinary mission: to follow in the footsteps of Josiah Thugwane and clinch gold in the marathon at the Summer Olympics. It’s one of the toughest sporting challenges on the planet.
Thugwane caused one of the greatest upsets in the history of the event when he went from reserve on the South African team to win the title – and gold medal – in the marathon at the Atlanta Summer Games in 1996.
A win for Mokoka would be less of a surprise. In fact, many in the know would have the thirty-six-year-old Gauteng athlete in at least their ‘long list’ of potential winners over the multi-lap course in Sapporo, a city 800km north of Tokyo, selected to provide relief from the heat of the Japanese capital.
Three memorable Mokoka moments in the last five years suggest the Johannesburg athlete has what it takes to excel in Sapporo.
Firstly, Mokoka’s superb last-gasp victory over top Kenyan Daniel Solel at the Cape Town Onerun 12km in May 2016 gave ample proof of Mokoka’s speed, notably in a sprint to the finish, something not uncommon in an Olympic Marathon.
Secondly, the latter stages of the 2018 Cape Town Marathon, where Mokoka outran a powerful field to clinch victory in 2 hrs 08 min 31 sec, confirmed his staying power and ability to dig deep when things get tough during the ‘business end’ of the race.
Thirdly, if there had been any doubts about Mokoka’s ability or confidence in mixing it with the world’s best ‘on the day’, the 2019 World Championships in Doha dispelled them. Just five kilometres from the finish, Mokoka appeared at the front of the lead group, setting the pace as athletes tired under the difficult, hot conditions which prevailed. Mokoka dropped off the pace to finish fifth, just 29 seconds behind winner, Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa, but he showed he is not afraid to step up and make a move when the situation calls for it.
In addition, Mokoka’s impressive relationship with the Shanghai Marathon in China, with four wins and two runners-up positions out of seven appearances since 2011 is as good as it gets.
A number of top-three places, racing against the likes of Mo Farah and the world’s best in the Great North Run 10km in England and four top ten positions at the world half-marathon championships between 2009 and 2020 (including a national half-marathon record of 59:36 at last year’s championship in Poland) underline Mokoka’s success overseas.
Countless national road and track titles in his home country (Mokoka won twelve national track titles between 2008 and 2018 in distances between 1500m and 10 000m and was nigh unbeatable at the national 10k and half marathon championships) added to his impressive international CV suggests Mokoka’s presence at the marathon medal ceremony at the closing ceremony at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo cannot be discounted.
Certainly, Mokoka himself is not discounting a medal. “I’ve always predicted that the winning time will be fairly slow, given the conditions and the type of running usually seen at the Olympics.
“After my fifth place at the world championships in Doha, I’m looking to be up there close to medal contention. And my recent 2:08 at Lake Biwa in Japan also gives me confidence.
“I believe that if everything goes well for the next four weeks, with no distractions or injuries, a medal is possible. My hard work to prepare for the marathon is now done. The last block is about bringing me to a peak and I’m confident my coach Michael Sime (known in running circles as ‘Coach Sponge’) will help me to do that.
“I’ve been with Michael for 16 years and have developed a close relationship with him. Of course, he will not be able to be with me at the Olympics, but mostly I’m on my own at races anyway so that will not be a problem.”
While some of his rivals in the race will have personal best marathon times several minutes faster than his 2:07:40 best, Kenyan Samuel Wanjiru’s 2:06:32 Olympic Marathon record is just over a minute quicker than his best and one second faster than Gert Thys’ South African marathon record, which Mokoka feels is within his compass.
A slow first half would play into Mokoka’s hands – or feet, which have been shown to be some of the quickest in the business. “City marathons are for the fast guys who run for fast times with pacers,” says Mokoka. “Championship races are a different ball game. The best man will win, not necessarily the speedsters.
“In City marathons there are probably four to five really fast guys with four pacemakers. At the Olympics, there’s likely to be a bunch of a hundred in the first half. Usually there are no problems till 30 km, when the going starts to get tougher. After 35 km your training starts to kick in and then we will find out who is still in contention.
“So far, everything’s gone well with my training. I’m based in Pretoria and fortunately we have had a warm winter. I’m doing my long workouts at around ten in the morning when it’s warmer, around 20 degrees. And I’m training in my sweater to acclimatise to the expected warm conditions in Japan.”
Mokoka recognises that experience is key to marathon success. While there have been notable examples of athletes running exceptional debut marathons, eleven years after his first marathon, Mokoka feels he is still learning and growing. “For example, we made some mistakes with our hydration in Doha which ultimately cost me,” he explained.
“I lost a few bottles along the road which proved decisive in the final few kilometres. Especially in hot and humid conditions, as it was in Doha, the body needs replacement of sodium, iron, potassium and other minerals. Conditions in Japan will also be hot and humid, so Doha was an important lesson in hydration for the Olympic Marathon.”
Mokoka feels he has achieved a balance between distance running experience (including competing in two Olympiads) and relative marathon freshness.
“Although I’ve run quite a few marathons since my first in 2010, my path has been different to that of many athletes,” Mokoka added. “I’ve never run more than two marathons a year at full effort and I think that’s kept me fresh. I don’t feel I’ve lost speed. I’m at my peak and still feel I’ve a few more years to reach my marathon goals.”
Mokoka enjoys running with teammates, although few are able to match him for long. At the Olympics he looks forward to sharing the road with fellow athletes in green and gold. “Elroy (Gelant) and Desmond (Mokgobu) are both in top form and it will be good to have other South Africans with me. I hope we can still be together towards the end of the race.”
While COVID protocols dictate that Mokoka will have no supporters in Japan, his family and friends will all be ‘glued to the television’ for the marathon, even though it will be at midnight, South African time. Family and friends at 600 Village, Mafikeng, where he was born, will be rooting for Mokoka, while his wife Zinhle – daughter of former marathon great, Zithulele Sinqe – and two year old son, Reabetswe, will keep the home fires burning at their Pretoria home hoping, along with 60 million other South Africans, that dad will bring home a medal.