JOHANNESBURG - A FANTASTIC running career that has inspired many a local runner could – and should – reach ‘boiling point’ in the heat and humidity of the Sapporo streets in Tokyo, Japan in the early hours of Sunday (SA time).
It would be a year later than had been planned, but Stephen Mokoka is the patient type.
“My coach and I had a 10-year plan which should have culminated in 2020,” he says during our interview at the Tshwane University of Technology Stadium. “Our goal was for me to run a good 2:06 but Covid-19 happened and messed everything up.”
Run that time and Mokoka would have smashed Gert Thys’ national record of 2:06:33 set on Valentine’s Day of 1999 in – wait for it – Tokyo, Japan. How grand would that have been?
It could still happen though, with the man who boasts the country’s second fastest marathon time of 2:07:40 set to compete in the final event of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics this weekend.
Not that the record will be uppermost on his mind when he starts alongside the likes of world record holder and reigning Olympics champion Eliud Kipchoge.
“We will have to relook at that 10-year plan and see when we can attempt the national record. We had gone to Madrid (2020) in great shape and I was ready physically and psychologically to break it but I was just unfortunate that the weather was very bad. I had to run in cold and wet weather conditions and I hit the wall at 38km and could only run 2:08. For now, the focus is on the Olympics and the dream is to get that global medal I’ve long wanted.”
That he is yet to win a medal on the big stage despite having been South Africa’s foremost athlete should not diminish the accomplishments of the diminutive 36-year-old runner.
Far from it, for while he may not have stood on the podium at the major events, Mokoka has always been there and thereabouts. From when he ran as a student at the World University Games (Summer Universidade) and collected bronze, silver and gold medals in the 10 000m as well as silver in the half marathon to his showing in the African Championships, and being national champion in multiple events, the man from Mafikeng has always shone bright.
Two years ago, he came within 29 seconds of golden glory and a mere 18 from a medal at the IAAF World Championships – the Boxer Athletic Club star finishing fifth after being with the leaders until the final kilometre. While heartbroken that his showing in Doha was not good enough for gold, Mokoka has learnt from that experience.
“Just like Doha, I believe Tokyo is going to be hot. So I am hoping my body can cope. If my body copes, my dream is to finish the marathon – that’s the first goal. Second goal is to improve on the 49th place (from his sole Olympic marathon run at London 2012). The ultimate goal is to get the medal, to find myself on the podium.”
Kipchoge won Rio 2016 in the ‘pedestrian’ time of 2:08:44. Given that conditions tomorrow are likely to be similar – hot and sticky – to those from the Brazilian city five years ago, there’s a good chance it will take around the same time to win in Tokyo.
What pleases the man who competed in the 10 000m race at the previous Games the most is the fact that he is maturing in the marathon.
“The initial plan for my running career was to retire at the age of 38 (years),” he reveals. “But I am noticing that I am getting more experienced and I am running much better now. I am finding that the marathon is actually getting easier because I am no longer going through rough patches and getting injuries. I can train an entire programme three times in a year over four months each without injuries. It is probably because the body is stronger now.”
This realisation has got Mokoka to reconsider his plan to retire at 38. “While I have decided to stop doing the half marathons, I think I will continue running the marathon. Maybe I will retire at about 40, which means I still have two more Olympics in me – the coming one in Tokyo and hopefully I will also make the next one in Paris. Bernard Lagat is my inspiration. He went to the Olympics at 42.”
Mokoka hopes he will get better with time in the marathon so he can achieve the goal he set himself many years ago when, after following his mother’s instructions to take his education seriously, he met his coach Michael Sponge Seme who helped him believe in his capabilities enough to dream big.
“The reality is that my career is not escalating the way I’d wanted. I had wanted to be one of the best decorated athletes in the world, a great athlete all over Africa and in the world. That has not happened yet but I hope that in future it will. I wish I’d already had a global medal by now. But I’ve not given up and I am hoping I can get it later.”
Given the ‘rotten’ campaign Team South Africa has had in Tokyo, later this weekend would do just fine thank you Mr Mokoka – if only to inspire aspiring runners like you’ve always done.