When the starter’s pistol sounds at Sapporo Odori Park on 7 August in Japan, South Africa sees their best chance in many an Olympic Games with Nedbank running club green dream team runners, Gerda Steyn and Irvette Van Zyl toeing the start line.

 Both coached by Nedbank running club national team manager Nick Bester, the two are in superb form and looking for a good result. “I must say that both Gerda and Irvette are in phenomenal shape,” says a confident Bester. “We changed the program a little bit in making the hard sessions extremely hard, but then adding in more rest in between for them to recover well and they’ve both responded well to the change.”

Having guided Steyn to a national record in the marathon and Van Zyl to a new personal best and Olympic qualifier from the same event in Sienna, Italy, the training is obviously working and is evident in the results being achieved.

“Overall, they are both extremely strong and the speed is there. We are just hoping for a relaxed last week prior to the race with no unexpected health problems and we are taking all precautions not to get sick in any way.”

This is evident as was seen when Van Zyl ran a 10km time trial at home in Pretoria when the Spar Ladies 10km down in Durban was postponed due to Covid-19. Her time of 32:45 on an undulating course at altitude was impressive. “I’m very happy with the time that I ran because it was so cold and windy on that day,” recalls Van Zyl. “It was sad that the Spar race was cancelled because at sea level with competition I was excited to see what I could have run, but when life gives you lemons, you just make lemonade!”

Both Van Zyl and Steyn have the pedigree and times to sneak into a top 10 finish, something Bester doesn’t think is too out of reach. “The major issue with Sapporo is the heat,” says Bester. “The runners are lucky that it is there and not Tokyo which is even warmer so we are hoping that on race day it can be a little bit cooler, and the girls will execute their race plan.”

When asked what the plan is, Bester smiled. “It will all depend on the weather conditions, but I believe that both Gerda and Irvette are definitely in SA marathon record shape so if they run that time, we are confident of a good placing. With the World Women’s World record at 2 hours 14 minutes 04 seconds by Brigid Kosgei and the Olympics’ Record standing at 2 hours 23 minutes 07 seconds by Tiki Gelana which was achieved in the 2012 London Olympics it shows us that the Olympic marathon is most of the time a tactical race and the Olympic winning time is not too far-fetched for our two Nedbank star athletes. Taking into consideration that Sapporo is close to sea level at 29 meters above I am confident that the duo will make us proud.”

The national team arrived in Sapporo on Saturday, a week ahead of their race after a short stay at the Olympic village. “I’m happy that I at least got to experience the Olympic village a little bit,” said Steyn who is at her first Olympic Games whilst Van Zyl is at her 3rd. “I still feel a bit jet lagged and its extremely hot here but it’s so great to be here and we get motivated by South Africa’s performances at the Games so far!”

The Women’s Olympic Games Marathon will be broadcast live on SABC Sport and Supersport with coverage starting at 00:00 on Saturday morning.

The Men’s Olympic Games Marathon will include Stephen Mokoka, Elroy Gelant and Desmond Mokgobu and takes place on 8 August 2021.