Stephen Mokoka made history at the African Championships on Wednesday when he became the first South African to win the 10 000m title in Durban.
And it wasn’t the only pot of gold for the hosts on the opening day of action, as Jaco Engelbrecht caused an upset in the shot put when he grabbed victory over South African champion Orazio Cremona.
In the first track final of the championships at the Kings Park Athletics Stadium, Mokoka and Gladwin Mzazi presented the local challenge, but were expected to be up against it when faced with the usual threat from the Kenyans and Ethiopians in the long distances.
But with the top two athletes from those countries who had been on the start list not competing, in the shape of sub-27 minute athletes Kenyan William Sitonik and Ethiopian Tamirat Tola, Mokoka took full advantage.
With the conditions not ideal for quick times, Mokoka edged out another Kenyan in Wilfred Kimitei on the line to win in 28:02.97, with Kimitei taking the silver medal in 28:03.18.
Lesotho’s Namakwe Nkhasi (28:06.33) did well to finish third, but Mzazi missed out on an Olympic qualifying time of 28 minutes flat as he faded to 10th in 28:24.50.
In the shot put, Cremona was the favourite after winning the SA title in April, but it was the experienced Engelbrecht who produced a throw of exactly 20 metres to take gold, although it was short of the Olympic mark of 20.50m.
Cremona actually finished out of the medals, ending fifth in 19.15m, with veteran Burger Lambrechts seventh with 17.79m as the other medals went to Franck Owaka of the Republic of Congo (19.89m) and Nigeria’s Stephen Mozia (19.84m).
The scene was set for some top sprinting as well in the men’s and women’s 100m, with the athletes jostling for a place in Thursday’s final.
There was a big blow to the South African team as national champion Henricho Bruintjies withdrew from the event with a hamstring strain, although Tuks HPC head Danie Cornelius told Independent Media that it was more of a precautionary measure and that Bruintjies should be ready for the Rio Olympics.
That meant that SA record-holder Akani Simbine had to lead the local charge, and he had a good day, running 10.27 in his heat and 10.25 in the semi-final. But the bigger surprise was Bruintjies’ replacement, Thando Roto, who made it through to Thursday’s final with a new personal best of 10.28.
Simbine, though, will have to be at his best if he hopes to win gold, as the Ivory Coast’s Ben Youssef Meité ran a blistering time of 10.15 to be the fastest qualifier for the final. Lesotho’s Mosito Lehata has also been impressive over the last few weeks, and produced a 10.20 on Wednesday.
SA teenager Gift Leotlela also reached the final by a whisker after qualifying as one of the fastest third-placed semi-finalists with a time of 10.29.
On the women’s 100m front, another Ivorian in Murielle Ahouré stamped her authority with a world-class time of 11.08. But the African record holder won’t have it all her way in Thursday’s final, with SA counterpart Carina Horn clocking a new season’s best of 11.14 to go through as the second-fastest qualifier to prove that she is in top shape and able to push Ahouré all the way.
With SA champion Alyssa Conley concentrating on just the 200m in Durban, Tebogo Mamatu also sneaked into the 100m final in 11.58.
Thursday will see 2009 world champion Caster Semenya in action for the first time at the championships in the 1 500m heats, with her preferred 800m coming later in the week.