In 1992, Elana Meyer won an Olympic silver medal and helped put South Africa back on the sporting map, after years of isolation. It transformed her into not only an iconic South African hero, but also one of the most feared competitors in world running. However, Elana’s silver was just one chapter in a long and illustrious world class running career.
When Elana Meyer arrived in Barcelona for the Olympic Games in 1992 – South Africa’s first Games since 1960 – she was considered the country’s best hope for a gold medal, but she had only a small amount of international racing experience. In fact, she had only run her first race outside of South Africa a short while before heading to Spain, at the Unity Games in Dakar, Senegal. It was all still so new to her.
“It was amazing to get to Barcelona. I kept telling myself, ‘It is true, it is true. I am here.’ It was very emotional because I had waited such a long time. I had actually qualified in 1984 for the Olympic 3000, but we couldn’t go. Zola took the British route to get there, but I didn’t have a British grandfather,” says Elana. “Instead, I was still a rookie in international racing in 1992.”
She was inundated with sometimes unbelievable questions from the media. “Even though my name was high in the international rankings, a lot of people didn’t believe our times from South Africa – they thought the tracks were short over here. People also asked me really funny questions, like do we grow up in the bush!”
By the end of the Games though, the world knew who Elana Meyer was, and how fast she could run, after she won the silver medal in the women’s 10 000m final. However, it was what happened after the race that left such an abiding memory. Elana embraced gold medallist Derartu Tulu, from Ethiopia, then the two runners draped their flags over their shoulders and ran an historic victory lap together, to a standing ovation from the packed stadium.
To begin with, Tulu’s victory was the first ever by a black African female athlete at the Olympics, but it was the shared joy of the black and white Africans, united by sport, that was seen as a victory for a new South African nation, which was approaching its first democratic elections.
“A lot of people remember that race for different reasons, but often it is for the victory lap,” says Elana. “Everyone here was watching the Games and wanted us to bring back gold medals, but we didn’t have that many good performers. Coming back was a positive experience, because we were accepted by all South Africans – it wasn’t just seen as a performance for white South Africa.”
That first year back in international competition was quite an eye-opener, says Elana. “Whenever I arrived in a city, there would be a press conference and they would ask me political questions. I knew it would be better to say something, unlike Zola in the 80s. I knew that I couldn’t just say ‘I am an athlete and I’m not going to go into the political side.’ That would just have made it more difficult for me, so I tried to answer the questions as honestly and informed as I could. That went on for first one or two years, because everything was very focused on politics and the participation of SA athletes, but after that we were pretty much accepted like other athletes.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. “When I went to Europe to compete ahead of the Games, Liz McColgan was the reigning World Champion and could dictate who ran against her, and she didn’t want to race me before the Games. So while I got to race internationally, it was not the ideal preparation because I couldn’t do the races I really wanted to. Also, while I was in Oslo or Stockholm, it was hard to stay focused because there were rumours that we wouldn’t be going to the Olympics because of the riots back home in Boiphatong.”
Elana was born in 1966 in Albertinia in the Southern Cape, the second of four children. She discovered her talent for running at an early age, but truly burst onto the running scene when she was just 13-years-old – when she won the Voet van Afrika Half Marathon in Bredasdorp in a time of 1:27:35! Unfortunately, she was soon disqualified…
“My neighbour in Albertinia told me of this cool race in Bredasdorp, so I went and ran it. The longest I’d run till then was about 10km in training. I won the half, but got disqualified because I was too young, and didn’t have a licence number and didn’t belong to a club.”
She started running when she went to primary school, doing mostly short sprint distances – because she would get a chocolate if she did well in races. Then, when Elana was about nine or ten, her school held a 3km fun run and she decided to give it a try. “I did quite well, and realised that I really liked the longer runs, so I tried to run the 5km from our farm to town without walking, but there was one mother of a hill, so it was a challenge. I remember the joy of achieving that goal, and I remember enjoying the feeling of freedom that I got from running.”
Elana focused on the track until she was in Matric, but then started doing the odd road race. That year, she went to Knysna and won another half marathon, but the track was still her priority. “My main focus was track for most of my career, especially in the isolation years. Zola was still faster than me, so my main goal was to be the fastest in SA, moving up from the 3000 to 5000, and later to 10 000. The good thing was that there were still challenges within SA, but by about 1990 I was winning comfortably in SA. So I started racing the international girls ‘on paper’ by comparing my times to theirs. I knew my competition and that kept me going through the isolation years.”
Elana also used these years to pursue her studies. She was awarded her B.Comm and B.Comm (hon) degrees, as well as her Higher Education Diploma from the University of Stellenbosch. She then enrolled for a Masters degree in marketing, but that had to be put aside when South Africa’s isolation from world sport ended and Elana suddenly had the opportunity to take on the rest of the world. “I always thought someday I would finish my Masters when I was pregnant, but I don’t think that’s going to happen now!” she laughs.
Between 1992 and her retirement in 2005, Elana performed consistently well on the world stage, breaking six world records, winning a World Cup title and winning the World Half Marathon title in 1997 (after coming back from a ruptured Achilles injury suffered in the 1996 Olympic Marathon). She set 23 South African records and won 30 gold, 14 silver and five bronze medals at SA Championship events.
Respected South African athletics statistician, Ri?l Hauman, believes that there is little doubt that Elana is the best female distance runner produced in South Africa. “Meyer’s domination of the road running scene in South Africa is without peer and she is the only SA woman to win a global road title. Also, between losing a mile race to Zola Pieterse in Bloemfontein on 18 February 1991 and finishing fifth over 1500m at the Nice Grand Prix on 15 July 1992, Meyer won 51 straight victories over a variety of distances and on all three surfaces. As far as is known, this is an unprecedented ‘streak’ in the history of women’s distance running.”
Elana was a prodigious racer, running up to 50 races in a single year. “I loved racing more than training, so preferred the shorter distances. I really enjoyed the half marathon, because it was short enough to really race it. In the marathon, I always felt I had to try and hold myself back, but in the half I could go for it. Also, the half doesn’t take too much out of you, so there’s no need for months of preparation or a long rest period after the race.”
Since retiring from international racing, Elana has focused on using her vast experience to add value to organisations and institutions. Her two most popular offerings are interactive inspirational programmes: Success and Balance, based on her life story and running career, and Achieving Excellence, in which she translates the effort and dedication that enabled her to break the world half marathon record into achieving success in business. As a qualified life coach, she also offers extensive one-on-one follow-up sessions for in-depth personal growth.
In 2007, Elana joined forces with the JAG Sports and Education Foundation, which focuses on education and sport development at a grassroots level, by encouraging young South Africans to dream, and to transform their dreams into achievable realities. As CEO, Elana is responsible for the running of the Foundation and for implementing education programmes which promote physical health, emotional wellbeing and personal achievement in under-served communities.
She is driven by a belief that she has a responsibility to give something back, because she received so much from sport. “The biggest teacher in my life was my sport, and that’s why I truly believe that sport is an incredible vehicle to use with kids for education, personal development and to empower them. What you learn through sport gives you such valuable tools that you can transfer to other aspects of your life.”
So does she miss her racing, and does she harbour any desire to make a comeback? “No, I have no drive to do that. I trained hard for many years, including Saturdays and Sundays. After many years like that, I exhausted all my competitive juices and spirit. There’s nothing about races that I miss – that’s been replaced by the rewarding work I’m currently doing with the Foundation.”
“People still ask me why I don’t run any more, because I can still win! But I retired with a feeling of having had a great career. I travelled the world, experienced a lot of highlights, and I feel fulfilled. I had a long career and achieved a lot of my dreams, and I really enjoyed it. Towards the end of my career, I was a bit scared of what would happen next. I loved the training, the travel and the opportunities, but being part of JAG means I’m still close to my passion. I have such a full and rewarding life now with my partner Jacques and my son Christopher, and spending time with them means more than anything.”
Elana is currently expecting her second baby, a daughter this time, and is loving every minute of being a mother. “The best performance of my life is, without doubt, Christopher. And the biggest gift now is my second pregnancy, because I’m older. I’ve been really lucky and am now even luckier that I can hopefully raise Christopher with a baby sister as well.”
She still gets up early every day for a run, anything from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on her schedule, and often with Christopher in the baby jogger. She says that she hasn’t run with a watch for years now; she just goes out nice and slow. But obviously not that slow…
“I still sometimes pass people on the run, even with the baby jogger. It was quite funny the one day when Christopher was still quite small. I was running just behind an international triathlete here in Stellenbosch and he kept looking behind to see if he had shaken me off. He even tried accelerating, but there I was just behind him. I saw him again a while later at the Totalsports Challenge and he came up to me to tell me that he couldn’t believe that he couldn’t drop this woman with the baby, but only later found out who it was running behind him!”
ELANA’S SA RECORDS
DATE DISTANCE TIME 24 Nov 1984 15km (jr) 53:18 07 Nov 1987 2000m 5:42.15 22 Jul 1989 10km 31:47 05 Oct 1989 10 000m 32:28.9 03 Nov 1990 15km 48:17 08 Apr 1991 5000m 14:49.35 19 Apr 1991 10 000m 32:13.13 29 Apr 1991 3000m 8:32.00 04 May 1991 10km 31:33 18 May 1991 21.1km 67:59* 05 Oct 1991 15km 47:40 02 Nov 1991 15km 46:57* 23 Dec 1991 10 000m 31:33.46 06 Mar 1992 5000m 14:44.15 07 Aug 1992 10 000m 31:11.75 10 Sep 1994 10 000m 30:52.51 16 Oct 1994 5km 15:10* 22 Jul 1995 5000m 14:44.05 09 Mar 1997 21.1km 67:36* 05 Apr 1997 10km 31:19 08 Mar 1998 21.1km 67:29* 15 Jan 1999 21.1km 64:44* 14 Oct 2001 10km 31:13**
* Also a world record
** Also a world veteran (35+) record