Heartbreak as Mokoka falls painfully short of a World Championships medal
JOHANNESBURG – It is these kind of near misses many athletes struggle to move on from, but Stephen Mokoka is made up of sterner stuff and you can bet he will be stronger for the experience and use it positively going forward.
The South African champion missed out on a podium finish in the marathon at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha late on Saturday night when it had appeared he would make history and get the country its maiden medal in the event.
Granted, fifth position is the best placing by a South African in the 42.2km race at the global showpiece, but Mokoka is unlikely to be consoled by that - not when he had looked so good to challenge for the title after sticking with the initial six-man breakaway group that took over from initial leader Derlis Ayala of Paraguay, who sped away from the outset.
When the south American faded and eventually pulled out of the race, Eritrea’s Zersany Tedase set the pace for Mokoka’s group, that included defending champion Geoffrey Kirur of Kenya and his compatriot Amos Kipruto, and the Ethiopian duo of Lelisa Desisa and Mosinet Geremew who finished first and second respectively.
In a tactical race that saw no one really keen to take control, Mokoka often made surges to try and break the group but always looked comfortable with the leaders.
Yet late in the race when Kirur lagged behind, the South African strangely kept looking back as though waiting for the champion to catch up.
At the 35km mark when the bell rung for the final 7km lap, Tedase was left behind and with the group whittled down to four it appeared the race was set for a four-way battle.
But then Briton Callum Hawkins came flying through from behind, first overhauling Tedase and then closing in on the unsuspecting quartet.
Hawkins, who had prepared for the race by running on the treadmill in his shed filled with heaters back in Scotland, appeared strong as he joined the group and Mokoka looked as though he had seen a ghost at the sight of the Brit.
And like that, the medal dreams of a man who recently broke the national half marathon record were gone as Mokoka’s confidence seemed to evaporate in the Doha humidity.
Lelisa Desisa brings home marathon 🥇 for Ethiopia 🇪🇹 in 2:10:40!— IAAF (@iaaforg) October 5, 2019
After #WorldAthleticsChamps silver in 2013 and wins at various World Marathon Majors, Desisa can now add "World Champion" to his growing list of accolades. pic.twitter.com/nhKRM7O8P7
There was just under three kilometres left at the time but Mokoka had little left in his legs and could only hang on for fifth spot as the quartet left him.
In the end even Hawkins was left behind as the east Africans turned the pace up.
The Ethiopians left the Kenyan to the bronze medal to engage in a sprint finish that saw Desisa bring his country their first world marathon title in 18 years.
For Mokoka, it was a classic case of so near yet so far. But with Olympic participation secured, bet on the South African champion to put the lessons learnt from Doha to good use in Tokyo next year.