After chatting with Zola Budd previously, James Sullivan has been talking to another running legend from South Africa. Step forward Olympic silver medallist Elana Meyer… 

Elana Meyer is a former elite female long distance runner from Western Cape, South Africa, who competed primarily in the 10000 metres and half-marathon. The early part of her career was blighted by international sporting ban on South Africa due to its apartheid policy, thus resulting in her missing out on going to the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games.

However by the time the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona came along, South Africa had come out of international sporting isolation, giving Meyer the opportunity, at the age of 25, to compete against the best in the world, on the highest stage, for the first time.

In the 10000 metre final, Meyer took up a relentless pace in the closing stages of the race, dropping all her competitors in the process, with the exception of Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia. Tulu out-sprinted Meyer on the final lap to claim the first ever gold medal by an black African woman, while Meyer won the silver.

After the race, both Tulu and Meyer went on a victory lap together, side by side, black African with white South African, forming a symbol of the end of the apartheid era in South Africa and the start of a new united beginning. This has become one of the most iconic moments in the history of the Olympic Games.

Meyer was well known for her front running style and excelled particularly over the half-marathon distance. In 1994 she won the World Half-Marathon Championship in Oslo, Norway, and in 1998 she claimed the silver medal in the same event. On four occasions she set the world record for half-marathon, the last of which was in Tokyo in 1999, when she clocked a time of 1:06:44. This record lasted until 2009, when Kenya’s Mary Keitany bettered it.

Meyer retired from competitive running in 2005 and is now the Chief Executive Officer of JAG Foundation, a charity which encourages disadvantaged children in South Africa to take up sport.

A new beginning for South Africa

James: Thank you Elana for taking the time to talk with The Running Review. Easy question first, how did you first get involved in running?

Elana: I started running longer distances at a young age after winning a fun run at our school when I was 9 years old.

James: At what moment in your life did you realise that running would become more than just a hobby for you?

Elana: I won the Foot of Africa half marathon in 1980 in 1 hour 27 minutes at the age of 13, beating all the senior athletes in the process. I realised that running longer distances was not hard for me and that I could do pretty well in them.

James: As a toddler you had a miraculous escape from a near fatal accident. How did this impact on how you have approached life in general, and how you ran races in particular?

Elana: It gave me a sense of appreciation for life and to go for the things you would really like to do and achieve. You only have now. Yesterday is history and tomorrow is a promise!

James: During the mid to late 1980’s you began to produce impressive performances. However due to the South African sporting boycott you missed out on competing in the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games. How frustrating was it to be denied the chance to showcase your talents at the highest level? Did you begin to doubt whether you would ever get the opportunity to compete in an Olympic Games or World Championships?

Elana: During that time I started racing my competitors from abroad “on paper” as a way of measuring my progress and ran the fastest 3000m in the world in that period. Somehow I knew the day would come that I would be able to compete against them.

James: Your compatriot Zola Budd famously took up UK citizenship to allow her to compete in the Olympic Games in 1984. Were you ever tempted to follow Zola and take up residency abroad in order to compete in the Olympic Games during South Africa’s sporting isolation?

Elana: I did not really have any back doors open to be able to do that.

James: What are your views on the sporting boycott that took place for over 30 years? Do you believe it was unfair on innocent South African athletes to be punished as a result of the apartheid policies implemented by the state? Does it bother you that people mix politics with sport?

Elana: This is something that will never change. Sport and politics will never be separated. In 1995 when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup and Nelson Mandela was in the stadium wearing the green and gold Springbok jersey, it worked out for the better. So some times you win and some times you lose.

James: On August 7th 1992, at the Barcelona Olympic Games, you claimed the silver medal behind Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia, in South Africa’s first appearance at the Olympic Games since 1960. From a personal point of view, how would you describe that experience?

Elana: It was a very intense experience, loaded with emotion and massive expectations of me back in South Africa. I was very much inexperienced in terms of international racing. There was a lot of politics attached to the race but it was certainly the biggest moment in my sporting career.

James: In the immediate aftermath of the race, in what is one of the most iconic moments in Olympic history, yourself and Derartu Tulu completed a victory lap together, forming a symbol of an end to the many years of apartheid, and of how sport is greater than racism. How significant was that moment in terms of the start of a new beginning in South Africa?

Elana: At the time it was a spontaneous moment of celebration. It had massive ripple effects that had a positive impact beyond the athletic performances and I very much cherish being a part of that.

James: Do yourself and Derartu keep in touch much nowadays?

Elana: I saw her last year and we had dinner together when she received her honorary doctorate degree from UWC. 

James: Excluding Barcelona, what moment during your running career are you most proud of?

Elana: Breaking the world record in the half-marathon with 1:06:44 at Tokyo in 1999 and winning the World Half-Marathon Championships at Oslo in 1994 are the moments I am particularly proud of.

James: What was it about that particular distance that allowed you to excel?

Elana: The half-marathon distance came naturally to me as it is short enough to race the distance without needing to worry too much about drinks or energy replacements during the race.

James: Which one of your competitors did you have particular admiration for?

Elana: Derartu Tulu – for her grace, longevity and great sportsmanship.

James: How often do you run nowadays? What have you done to keep fit since retiring from elite athletics?

Elana: I am still passionate about running. I run with a baby jogger mostly but also in the mountains when I can

James: How often would you watch track and field nowadays? Are you a keen follower of the sport? Which current athletes do you enjoy watching?

Elana: I don’t follow it that closely, but was at the World Championships as a Puma ambassador in Berlin two years ago. I still enjoy watching great performances.

James: What needs to be done to increase the profile of track and field in South Africa?

Elana: Federations need to be run like a business and great events need to be hosted. At the highest level track and field is a healthy sport and is still the blue ribboned event at the Olympic Games, but we have to bring that experience and perception home to the general public.

James: You are currently working as the Chief Executive Officer of the JAG Foundation, a charity that encourages disadvantaged children in South Africa to participate in sport. Can you describe the specific work that you do?

Elana: We use sport as a vehicle to educate children, to provide a healthy lifestyle, to participate, compete and to give children the benefit of what sport has to offer.

James: That’s great Elana. Thank you very much for your time.

Elana: No problem, you’re very welcome.

Tulu and Meyer after the Olympic Final in Barcelona

Want to find out more about the work that JAG Foundation does? Visit the JAG Foundation website or Elana Meyer’s official website.

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