This year 19 524 hopefuls entered the Comrades Marathon. On June 3, 14 580 lined up outside Pietermaritzburg City Hall for the starting gun, 11 944 of them completing the distance within the stipulated 12 hours.
The saying that all finishers are winners is truly frayed. But not to those who pound the old Durban road for some 89km: their sense of accomplishment eclipses the pain and fatigue.
It will be very disappointing to them, though, to learn that their event, this people’s race and noble test of athleticism and endeavour, has been smudged again by another controversy.
This time, the claim is that the man who broke the tape, Ludwick Mamabolo, 35, had a banned stimulant, methylhexaneamine, in his system.
Compounding the disappointment is the special pride the runner from Limpopo generated in being the first South African to win this grand event in seven years. Mamabolo beat Pietermaritzburg’s Bongumusa Mthembu by 1min 39secs – the first time in 15 years that South Africans had placed first and second.
In 1997, Charl Mattheus was followed less than two minutes later by Nick Bester. Ironically, Mattheus had a lot to prove – he had lost his first place in 1992 after testing positive for a banned substance too. He had taken an over-the-counter ’flu medication, one later removed from the banned list, and few in running circles believed he cheated.
An independent hearing, and a second test of Mamabolo’s sample, lie ahead. Whatever the outcome, this year’s Comrades saw 11 943 winners, possibly 11 944, depending on Mamabolo’s fate.
Controversy will arise because of the race’s prestige and, now, the prizes. But it is bigger than any individual, and always has been. If cheating is proven here, Mamabolo will have done his fellow runners a terrible disservice. The fact is, several thousand finished honestly. It is too big an event, it has too much history, to be sullied by one.