Elroy Gelant leads a 20-member charge on Sunday, as the SA team looks for its first ever medal at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships at the biennial off-road showpiece in Kampala, Uganda.
Though he proved last month he was in form by clocking 28:16.54 over 10 000m in windy conditions at the ASA Speed Series Meeting in Durban, after returning from a training camp in Kenya, Gelant will have to grit his teeth in what is expected to be a brutal 10km battle in the Senior Men’s race.
The national 5 000m record holder, who said in the build-up he was targeting a top-five finish, will face a field spearheaded by Kenyan defending champion Geoffrey Kamworor.
Gelant, a 20th finisher in Bydgoszcz in 2013 in his previous maiden appearance at the World Cross Country Championships, will lead compatriots David Manja, who won the SA title at George in September, Precious Mashele, Joel Mmone and Thabang Mosiako will be fiercely contesting the team competition.
The national women’s team will face an even tougher challenge in the senior 10km contest.
Led by national champion Kesa Molotsane, who has shown good form on the domestic circuit this season, the squad also includes Glenrose Xaba, Andrea Steyn, Sherilene Gelderblom and Louisa Leballo.
While they hope to cause an upset by hanging on to the Kenyan favourites, the South African women will have to be at their very best against a line-up which features title holder Agnes Tirop, returning in search of back-to-back crowns, Olympic 1 500m champion Faith Kipyegon who is also a former two-time world Junior Cross Country champion and African Championships 10 000m gold medallist Alice Aprot.
South Africa will also be represented by Tumi Lephotho, Dais Malebana, Ryan Mphahlele, Pakiso Mthembu and Kabelo Seboko in the Junior Men’s 8km race.
The Junior Women’s 6km team includes Nicole van der Merwe, Simonay Weitsz, Cherry-Lee Schoeman and promising 15-year-old athletes Nicole Louw and Lyndi Roelofse.
Even though Zola Budd, Elana Meyer and Colleen de Reuck all finished among the top 10 in the Senior Women’s division at various editions in the 1990s, no SA athlete or team has ever earned a medal at the global off-road spectacle.
Budd won gold in Lisbon in 1985 and Neuchatel in 1986, though she was competing for Great Britain at the time, and in 2002 De Reuck earned bronze in Dublin after switching allegiance to the United States.
In SA colours, Budd came closest to stepping on the podium, finishing fourth in Amorebieta in 1993.
“South Africa has a rich tradition of running Cross Country and we hope this team can close the gap on the world’s strongest by matching the performances we have seen in recent years on the track, field and road.
“We are not entirely satisfied with the overall quality of the team based on the performance in the build-up of the preparation Squad to this event, but we are confident the team will raise their levels to ensure that South Africa is a credible competitor in Uganda with a quality to contest for any of the team medals.
“We therefore wish the entire team the best competition, where individuals will show their mettle,” said Athletics South Africa President, Aleck Skhosana.