Olympic medalist Elana van Zyl, seen her with gormer Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, wants the Cape Town Marathon to recognised as one of the world's best, along with the London, Berlin, New York, Boston, Chicago and Tokyo marathons. Picture: Henk Kruger
Olympic medalist Elana van Zyl, seen her with gormer Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, wants the Cape Town Marathon to recognised as one of the world's best, along with the London, Berlin, New York, Boston, Chicago and Tokyo marathons. Picture: Henk Kruger
Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia and South Africa’s Elana Meyer soak up the love during their lap of honour after claiming gold and silver, respectively in the women’s 10 000m final at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.Picture: Supplied
Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia and South Africa’s Elana Meyer soak up the love during their lap of honour after claiming gold and silver, respectively in the women’s 10 000m final at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.Picture: Supplied

CAPE TOWN - World records were shattered, world titles and gold medals won, major international titles harvested. 

But the most enduring image of Elana Meyer, now back to her birth name of Elana van Zyl, is associated with a loss.

The return of South Africa to the Olympic fold in Barcelona in 1992 had been presaged by a see-saw saga of setbacks, with the athletes only receiving final confirmation of their participation weeks before the start of the Games.

That was hardly ideal for the Olympics, for which many athletes devote up to four years of specific preparation. 

Van Zyl’s appearance in the 10 000m final held hopes of a medal and potentially a title. 

The petite Albertinia-born athlete, then 26, ran a superb race, overcoming pre-race favourite and world champion, Liz McColgan, and a quality field. 

But the remarkable talent of 20-year-old Ethiopian, Derartu Tulu, and a 67-second final lap decided the fate of the gold.

The image of Tulu and Van Zyl running side by side on their victory lap was a powerful symbol of African athletic greatness on the one hand and a celebration of its cultural diversity on the other. 

It conjured an optimism at the dawn of a new era for South Africa. 

It spoke of partnership and collaboration - a portent of the future Van Zyl was later to embrace through her running academy, Endurocad, and her ambassadorship of the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon.

That 400m celebratory jog around Barcelona Olympic Stadium 26 years ago was emphatically a “Run4Change” - the brand name of the important Cape Town Marathon legacy programme promoting peace, environment, health and wellbeing, support for charities and athletics’ development. 

For Van Zyl, her spectacularly successful athletics’ career has greater meaning because of these five Run4Change pillars, which mirror her personal passions and current life focus. 

“I believe sport can play an enormous role in bringing people together, to focus on sporting outcomes and celebration rather than cultural differences and the things that divide us,” says Van Zyl. 

“The achievements of elite athletes is a key part of the Cape Town Marathon success, but the thousands who participate and support the event are instruments of change. 

“Running to promote peace, or a greater environmental consciousness, is a major component of the Cape Town Marathon."

But just as Kevin Anderson has inspired the nation through his tennis excellence, there is no getting away from the role played by elite athletes at the Cape Town Marathon. 

“Getting South Africa’s top marathoners to race the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon has always been important to me and this year we have achieved that with three of the four IAAF Gold Label athletes racing in September,” continued Van Zyl.

“Obviously gaining IAAF gold label status and retaining it is another box we can tick - I’m very proud of that. 

“But two other indicators of success for Cape Town are still to be achieved - that of creating a special Capetonian ‘gees’ and Cape Town joining the ‘major marathons’ club alongside London, Berlin, New York, Boston, Chicago and Tokyo. We’re working hard on achieving both of those.”

Van Zyl has always sought to surround herself with people who can best assist her to accomplish her goals, in athletics, in business and in life in general. 

Coaches such as the legendary Charles Faasen (at Robertson High) and Pieter “Lappies” Labuschagne (at Stellenbosch), business and mentorship support from the likes of Bernard Rose, Stewart Banner, Jos Hermans and Kim McDonald were important in her athletics career, which ultimately was to reach dizzy heights of success.


Van Zyl rates her 10 000m at Barcelona as one of her four greatest races, alongside her world half marathon title in Oslo in 1994, which she won by a huge 39-second margin, and her two world half-marathon records in Japan. 

One-time athletics rival, Cape Town Marathon race director Janet Grieve, has become one of Van Zyl’s most valued partners, while husband Jacques van Rensburg, himself a former South African elite track and cross country athlete, and children Christopher and Éne, provide her life centre and are her biggest supporters.

According to Van Zyl, the partnerships and structures which she has developed in business, are exactly what is required in South Africa to enable its athletes to excel in international competition. 

“Coaches are the key - ASA should invest heavily in coaches,” she emphasises. “They provide critical input to the athlete and are able to give accurate feedback.

“We need to work together far more than we do to provide the environment where athletes can train to their highest capacity. 

“The period between 18 and 24 years is critical - that’s where future champions will be shaped. 

“Our vision at Endurocad is to work in partnership with coaches and athletics organisations to provide the structure and mentorships that the athletes, particularly women, need to become IAAF gold label athletes.

Van Zyl runs most days, getting out of her Stellenbosch home with her dog through neighbouring farms and along mountain trails. 

She is “52 going on 35”, in top physical condition, and there is little doubt she could take a podium position in most local races at any time should she choose. But these days her focus is elsewhere.

“I stopped competing when I felt that running at elite level was just too selfish,” Van Zyl admitted. 

“You have to be focused to succeed - and that means less time for others. 

“Now I enjoy running so much, but I don’t want to compete. I get far more fulfilment working towards the success of others who have more talent than me and who could one day run faster than me.

“I had a wonderful career, travelled the world and made the most of opportunities,” Van Zyl reflected. 

“I enjoyed running fast times and achieving my goals, and have made lasting friends and networks with whom I keep in touch. 

“I may have done some things differently with hindsight, but I have absolutely no regrets.”

Cape Times

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