The Flying

He Made his Mark


men’s marathon at the 1993 IAAF World Champs in athletics in Stuttgart,
Germany, was quite a memorable race from a southern African perspective. Hopes
in South Africa were pinned on Willie Mtolo – who later that year would win the
New York Marathon – but it was Namibia’s Luketz Swartbooi who led for much of
the race and looked set to win. However, with just over 1km to go he was slowing
considerably and had nothing left to give. Then a tall, slightly gangly-looking
South African called Mark Plaatjes came breezing past him and pulled away to
take the win in 2:13:57, 13 seconds ahead of his Namibian friend.


“I caught second-placed Jae-Ryong Kim from
South Korea at 35km, but it was only when I got to 40km and saw the lead van that
I realised I could win it,” says Mark. “I felt absolutely horrible passing Luketz,
because he did so much work and was so brave, but I had waited 12 years to
compete against the best in the world, due to South Africa being banned from
international sport due to Apartheid, and I was the most motivated person out
there. I fully expected to get a medal in Stuttgart. I didn’t know what colour,
but I knew I’d get one!”



However, the record books do not list Mark’s gold
medal performance as South African, even though the country had been allowed
back into international sport the previous year. Instead, he was running for
his adopted country, the USA, where he and his family had sought political
asylum in 1988 while vacationing in Chicago, even though it meant sacrificing
his assets in SA, including his cars, home and investments.


“People think I came here to run, but it was
all about not wanting my two daughters growing up as second-class citizens.
Gene was three at the time and starting to ask questions… we’d pass by Water
World and she would want to go in, but could not understand that we weren’t
allowed in because it was Whites only. I couldn’t vote or live anywhere I wanted
to, or send my children to any school I wanted, and I didn’t want them growing
up always feeling inferior to someone.”



Mark was born in Johannesburg in 1961, one of 10
children of a seamstress and a shoemaker. His athletic talent shone through
from an early age and from 1981 to 1983 he attended the University of Georgia
in the USA on a track scholarship. “What really opened my eyes was coming
to America,” Plaatjes said. “I was treated wonderfully and never felt
any racism for the two-and-a-half years I was there.”


In 1985, Mark broke the SA marathon record with a scintillating
2:08:58 in Port Elizabeth to not only take the SA Marathon title for the second
time – he had won it in 1981, as a teenager! – but also became the first SA
runner to break 2:09. (And he won the SA Cross Country title twice, in 1984 and
1985.) But in 1985 he was also denied entry into the Boston Marathon at the
last minute, when he was already in Boston, due to the international ban on SA
athletes, even though he himself had suffered discrimination and disappointment
in Apartheid South Africa.


Moving to America in 1988 did not automatically
open the door to Mark competing on the world stage, however. At first he was
still denied entry to the top races like Boston, even though he had been
cleared to run, but he did get into the 1988 Los Angeles Marathon, where h
e ran 2:10:49 and
finished third.
What he remembers most is
going to the starting line, tears streaming down his face.
“I had only trained
for about four weeks and I just ran the race on emotion.” He was fourth in
LA in 1990 and won the race in 1991 in 2:10:29.



However, he still missed out on the 1992 Olympics –
ironically, that was the year SA made its triumphant return to Olympic stage –
because the rules required a five-year waiting period to gain US citizenship. So
the following year, Mark was determined to get to the World Champs in August,
but he only just made it! His American citizenship was finally issued in July,
just three weeks before the Champs, and he had been selected on the proviso
that his Green Card came through in time.


He went to the 1993 Houston Marathon to try to
qualify for the US team, but his 2:16 in windy conditions was not good enough.
“Then I went to Boston and it was great, because I had to run 2:12:45 to
get onto the team, and I ran 2:12:39 with lots of energy to spare.
I didn’t kill myself, as I knew I only had 14 weeks
between Boston and the World Championships. I just wanted to get on the
team.” He placed sixth overall and first American, and the rest, as they
say, is history.



Mark has made his home in
Boulder, Colorado, where he runs his physiotherapy practice, is part-owner of
the Boulder Running Company chain of running retail stores in partnership with
fellow SA expatriate and elite runner Johnny Halberstadt, and coaches a local
running club called Gijima. His knowledge of runners’ needs has seen his businesses
flourish in one of the pre-eminent running cities in the world, and his wife
Shirley has been practicing massage for over 10 years and is also part of the


Stuttgart proved to be the high
point of Mark’s career, which included wins in 20 major marathons around the
world, and he still speaks fondly of that day.
“Everything… becoming a
citizen, making the World Championships team, and the race turning out the way
it did… the whole saga was just so special. I couldn’t explain it then, and I
still can’t explain it, the way I felt on the podium, getting the medal and
hearing the national anthem.”