Durban - A little over 24 hours after arriving in Durban to run his first Comrades in a 10kg rhino suit, London runner Vincent O’Neill’s backpack was stolen on Friday.
O’Neill, who runs marathons in the rhino suit to raise funds to fight rhino poaching, was conducting media interviews at about midday, when he saw that his red pack was missing from where he had left it, minutes after he had arrived at the Comrades Expo at the Durban Exhibition Centre.
His backpack contained about £200 (R3 000) in his wallet, an iPhone, an Apple Mac and an iPad, as well as his passport.
The Expo was crowded with thousands of visitors and runners who had arrived to register.
“He was shaken at the theft, he didn’t expect that to happen,” said Trevor Neethling who is handling his fundraising campaign.
Soon after the pack went missing, O’Neill, who ran the London Marathon in the suit, searched the exhibition area and dustbins.
Robbie Cook, head of security, said. “We immediately alerted everyone, and about five minutes later the bag was found in the men’s toilets,” said Cook.
He said O’Neill informed security officials that his personal items were missing, but that his passport and wallet, minus the money, were still in the bag.
O’Neill said: “I was a bit devastated but these things can happen anywhere in the world. My goal remains the ultimate human race and pushing myself to the limit,”
He reported the theft to the Berea police station.
“I hope that South Africans know that the rhino poaching crisis affects us all over the world. Running the Comrades in rhino costume is my way of showing that I care. The money I’m raising goes into practical support for anti-poaching efforts in key rhino areas like Hluhluwe-iMfolozi,” he said.
Meanwhile, thousands of runners thronged the Expo. Russian twins Elena and Olyesa Nurgalieva chatted to fans and took pictures with them.
Also 24 drug testing officials will be conducting random doping tests tomorrow. But because of limited resources, the volunteers can test only about 25 runners of the 18 000 participants, including the ten gold medal winners.
Fahmy Galant of the SA Institute for Drug-Free Sport said the “chaperones” usually focus on the top runners but sometimes test even those running at the back.
“All the gaps and loopholes from last year have been closed this year,” Galant said.
His comment comes after last year’s Comrades winner, Ludwick Mamabolo, who was initially charged with doping, won his case against the organisation.
Mamabolo, who will take part in Sunday’s race, was banned after he tested positive for the stimulant methylhexaneamine. The runner, however, insisted that he had not used anything illegal, challenging the charges and subsequently winning the case. He was crowned champion a month ago.
Lesotho runner Lephetesang Adoro, who finished seventh, also tested positive for a banned substance and got a two-year sanction.
Officials have also beefed up security ahead of this year’s marathon. About 352 police and traffic officials will be along the route, with four bomb-sweeping vehicles and police sniffer dogs at the start and finish line.
Stacey Colborne, a forecaster with the Durban weather office, said it would be a warm day. Temperatures will peak at 28ºC for Durban and Pietermaritzburg, and no rain is expected.