High drama in finest race ever
Today is the 30th anniversary of arguably the most exciting South African road race of all time. It was run on the East London Esplanade.
In 1986 the SA Marathon Championships had produced a great race in Port Elizabeth when Mthatha-born Zithulele Sinqe and Durban’s Willie Mtolo went head-to-head. The race went down to the proverbial wire with Sinqe winning in 2:08:04, 11 seconds ahead of Mtolo. It was the fifth fastest time in the world at that juncture.
The organisers of the 1987 SA Half-Marathon Championships, with the full co-operation of the then South African Road Running Association (Sarra) set about planning the fastest possible route in East London, within the confines of Sarra’s own standards.
Isolated from the IAAF and international competition, South Africa nonetheless attracted the attention of distance runners around the world based on the outstanding performances of many fine athletes.
The 1987 event had its origins in 1981 when the SA Championships over 21.1km was run in the city for the first time.
On that occasion Mathews “Loop n Val” Motshwarateu won in 63:30. It was a sprint finish close to the German Settlers Monument.
Earlier in the year Mthatha’s Rogers Mbantsa had run a fast time on what the rest of South Africa thought had to be a short course, but on this day he proved what he could do and finished second, just one second adrift.
Kenny Jacobs followed in 63:32 and Johnny Halberstadt fourth in 63:35.
The day of the 1987 half-marathon dawned with an air of expectancy as SA went in search of a world best time that then stood at 60:43 held by Kenya’s Mike Musyoki.
Xolile Yawa was the man in form and punted by much of the media. He was the reigning SA champion and record-holder.
The Sowetan and a number of other newspapers reported that Yawa had run a blistering race in Bloemfontein, while Mathews Temane and Mark Plaatjies had both run race records two weeks previously.
No one was talking much about Sinqe.
Imvo headlined “Yawa to break world record”.
As it happened on a crisp, windless winter’s morning in July the excitement at the Oxford Street start was one of expectation.
The field catapulted down Oxford and Fleet streets to the esplanade. The first kilometre was run in 2min 39sec. A lead bus landed on the road towards Marina Glen headed by Jan Tau with Yawa on his shoulder and chased by amongst others, Sinqe and Temane.
Temane had run many races in the build-up and pundits were writing him off, though he declared that “I ran all of them comfortably”.
At 5km Temane, Sinqe and Tau were determining the pace, and what a pace it was – 13:44 as referenced from the Weekend Argus.
The 10km mark was reached in 28:07, which would have been an SA record in its own right. The same would apply at 15km when they went through in 42:50.
The East London Esplanade looked amazing on that day and the atmosphere and excitement of large crowds along the route and close to the finish was uplifting for the runners.
The announcer upped the ante and made it clear to all that a world best was now all but a foregone conclusion.
Temane and Singe broke away from Tau, and Yawa closed in on him, but the front two were sprinting. It looked like a Sinqe triumph was probable with a little over a kilometre to go.
But, Temane never let go and his famous “kick” had him adjudged the winner by the smallest of margins on the run-in to the Orient Beach finish.
Speaking about the race last week, SA’s current best masters half-marathoner and Border’s Makaya Masumpa, who was only 21 years old at the time said “Yo! yo! I remember it was a very fast race. Tau upfront, Stephens Morake, XY, Temane and Sinqe. It was the biggest race.”
Daily Dispatch editor at the time, Glyn Williams, has emotional memories of that day saying that he had been at the finish when it became apparent something special was about to happen. “It was a great place to see the climax of probably one of East London’s greatest sporting events.”
Williams adds: “There was even greater emotion at the prize-giving brunch at Cambridge Town Hall. When Temane and Sinqe came on stage there was a memorable scene, surely unmatched in the hall’s long history. Everyone rose to their feet and the standing ovation went on and on.”
Mick Winn, the then chairman of Sarra, and his wife Cheryl who was the administrator at the time offered this joint statement when approached for comment: “The gentlemen are two of the finest human beings we have had the privilege to know – humble, modest, generous in spirit and supremely talented.”
Matthews Temane and Zithulele Sinqe completely epitomised a golden era in South African distance running, both sadly reaching the pinnacles of their respective and concurrent athletics careers during the double whammy period of apartheid and international sporting isolation, thus sadly missing out on the international acclaim and rewards they both so richly deserved.
Both gentlemen were true champions, absolute running machines and genius competitors. It was exhilarating and one felt humbled to watch them both compete in so many thrilling events with Temane triumphing in multiple roadrunning races and championships over the shorter distances against fierce competition from the likes of Xolile Yawa, Gibeon Moshaba, Kenny Jacobs, Simon Madibeng and a host of others; and Sinqe producing a phenomenal 2:08:04 to just beat Willie Mtolo in the 1986 SA Marathon Championship.
While Temane excelled at distances from the mile to the half-marathon and had a killer kick, Zithulele excelled from half- to ultra-marathons combining speed with phenomenal endurance.
The SA half-marathon championships in July 1987 goes down as one of the greatest achievements in South African sporting history when these two titans of the roads clashed over the one distance at which they were potentially equally matched.
I recall something special in the air that day – an atmosphere of electricity and excitement – that one could sense almost from the start that something remarkable was about to happen.
With less than a metre separating them, Temane just pipped Sinqe and they were both clocked at 60:11 a world record in every sense of the word.
In conclusion Mick Winn added: “In over 50 years it was undoubtedly the greatest athletics performance I have ever had the privilege to witness.”
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