The country’s running fraternity was in shock on Tuesday night after doping authorities announced the winner of this year’s Comrades Marathon - the first South African to win since 2005 – tested positive for a banned substance.
Social media and public comment forums indicated collective shock after the SA Institute for Drug Free Sport (SAIDS) announced that Ludwick Mamabolo tested positive for methylhexaneamine.
“How can he let us down like this,” tweeted Andy L Kaufman.
Comrades race organisers also took to Twitter, confirming that SAIDS had informed them of the result, saying: “We are most disappointed”.
Another Twitter user, Kikmi, said: “You cheated at the most value and loved race in SA. How do you sleep at night?”
Mamabolo, who could lose his title, but must wait a month for an investigation, is entitled to a further test which will determine whether his first urine sample is contaminated.
Despite public expressions of shock and “disappointment”, race organisers have praised drug testers for their vigilance, saying the race would survive the scandal.
”As per the protocol for testosterone cases, we have to rule out endogenous production (manufactured in the body) of testosterone by the athlete’s body and any medical abnormality,” said SAIDS chief executive Khalid Galant.
The sample had been sent for further analysis to the doping control laboratory in Cologne, Germany, which would return the result in about four weeks.
According to SAIDS, Mamabolo could also face a two-year ban if found guilty by an independent tribunal.
If he is stripped of the title, South African Bongmusa Mthembu, who finished second, will take his place.
SAIDS said it conducted a number of doping control tests after this year’s race, and among those tested were the top 10 men and women finishers.
Mamabolo had the option to have his B-sample tested.
“The B-sample is a 30ml sample of the original sample of the athlete,” Galant said.
“The sample is divided into A and B samples at the time of the test being performed. The two samples are independently sealed at this stage. The B-sample is only opened at the request of the athlete. He may provide a witness to the opening... to ensure it has not been tampered with.”
Meanwhile, Professor of Sports Science at UCT Tim Noakes sounded a word of caution on Tuesday night: “There are two types of doping – active doping and incidental doping.
“What will be established is how this chemical ended up in this athlete’s body. He may have valuable insight himself, which he will no doubt present in due course.
“If it turns out that he did indeed ingest a foodstuff which led to this detection, then it is important to state now that it would be grossly unfair to brand him a cheat. If he knowingly took it, then that’s a different matter.”
Noakes added: “People who are clever never get caught since they use stuff that isn’t detectable in their urine. When it is detected it means you were completely unaware that you had taken it, or you are profoundly naive.”
Asked whether he believed doping was prevalent in marathon running, Noakes said: “In the Comrades, I don’t’ think so. But in global, international-class running, yes… The fact that it looks like Lance Armstrong is going to be exposed shows the extent of doping in top-level sports.
“Where there’s a lot of money to be made, there will be incentives for people to provide athletes with undetectable drugs. Where you have opportunity, you will have incentive.”
Comrades race director Johan van Staden said: “We support the testing, that’s why we employ drug-free SA, to be in full compliance.
“All the rules need to be complied with. If guys are taking the damn stuff then they must suffer the consequences.
Craig Fry, former manager of Mthembu, said he was shocked when he heard the news.
“Ludwick is a very good athlete. I think he probably took something without knowing that it was banned.”
Fry said many banned substances can be found in supplements.
This was not the only such finding in the event’s history. Charl Mattheus was stripped of the Comrades title in 1992 after testing positive for a banned substance. His fellow South African Jetman Msuthu, who finished second, was awarded the title.
Mattheus maintained that he unwittingly took medicine containing a banned substance in the build-up to the race. He returned to win the Comrades title in 1997.
Another South African, Sergio Motsoeneng, tested positive after he finished third in the 2010 race.
Athletics SA president James Evans would not comment on Mamabolo’s positive test “until SAIDS has finished its investigation”.
Manager of the Formula 1 Club, Cliff Chinnasamy, who produced last year’s winner, Steven Muzhingi, said on Tuesday it was a very sad day for SA running: “This creates a bad image for the country. We’ve become the laughing stock of the world.”