Elana still giving back to her sport
She is intent on securing Marathon Majors status for the African continent.
Though she can no longer be seen in action on the global circuit, former Olympic medallist Elana Meyer continues to play a key role in South African athletics, and if she has her way, she’ll be turning the Western Cape into a hub for African road running.
Born and raised in Albertinia, Meyer’s career began on the dusty roads around her family’s farm, and her ability as a long-distance runner was immediately evident.
At the age of 13 she won the popular Voet van Afrika Half-Marathon, stunning her opponents with her spindly legs carrying her over the challenging ter- rain. She was so young that Meyer was scratched from the results as she did not meet the minimum age limit to officially take part.
After linking up with her first coach, Charles Faasen, at Robertson High School, she started focusing on shorter distances.
Despite her impressive performances as a teenager, Meyer competed against a generation of distance running stars and she was completely overshadowed by the supremely talented Zola Budd who was just five months her senior.
While Budd’s career was derailed by politicians and a somewhat greedy father, and she never really reached her true potential, Meyer ultimately benefited from staying out of the limelight.
She flaunted her ability across a range of distances from 1 500m to the marathon, but it was over the longer distances that she cemented her place as an international star.
During a stellar career which included world-class performances in track, road running and cross country, she won the World Half-Marathon Championships in 1994 and set five world records over the 15km and 21.1km distances between 1991 and 1999.
She will be best remembered, however, for a race she did not win.
To this day, Meyer’s beaming smile while sharing a victory lap with Ethiopian winner Derartu Tulu at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics remains one of the most iconic images in South African sport, and though she settled for the 10 000m silver medal, she was both relieved and delighted to have achieved the feat.
“I had qualified to compete at the Olympic Games in 1984 (in Los Angeles, where Budd turned out for Great Britain) but because of isolation I didn’t get the chance until 1992,” she says, recalling the build-up to the Barcelona Games.
“I had minimal international experience and we had really just been chasing the clock at home, so I was tactically inexperienced, and the uncertainty around the Games also made it very difficult. Even after the IOC (International Olympic Committee) announced that we’d be able to compete, there was still a lot of political tension at home, and while I was preparing in Europe I was receiving faxes to say the decision had been overturned.
“It was a rollercoaster ride and it was difficult to focus on training. Ninety percent of the questions at press conferences were about apartheid, and I’m not a politician, so there was that spotlight placed on me as well.
“There was a lot of expectation back home because our team hadn’t done as well as many had expected, and I had looked forward to that day since I was nine years old, so to pull off the medal was a very emotional experience.”
The 52-year-old mother of two still runs regularly, and though she is no longer competitive, she remains entrenched in the sport which carried her to fame and glory.
Having played a key role in developing and supporting South African distance running through both the JAG Foundation and the Endurocad Academy, perhaps the biggest contribution she has made to the sport has been her involvement in relaunching the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon.
A central figure in the tremendous growth of the race over the last few years, as an ambassador alongside former Springbok rugby captain Francois Pienaar, Meyer has assisted in elevating it to top-flight status.
The only race in Africa with an IAAF Gold Label tag, she hopes it will continue to provide opportunities for talented local runners to compete against the international elite on home soil.
She is also eager to assist in lifting the race even further by gaining World Marathon Majors status, which is currently held by only six road races around the globe.
“Three Majors are in America, two are in Europe and one is in Asia, so there’s definitely an imbalance in terms of the locations,” she says.
“Africa is the home of the world’s best marathon runners and the southern hemisphere should have a Major.
“There is mega-funding required and it’s not an easy thing to achieve, so it’s a big dream, but I do believe it’s a realistic dream.”
DOYENNE. Elana Meyer has spent of her life involved in athletics and remains committed to the sport even in retirement.
FAMOUS MOMENT. Meyer burst onto the scene in 1992 when she grabbed a silver medal behind Ethiopia’s Derartu Tulu in the 10 000m at the Barcelona Olympics.