Crossing the Finish Line

In the nine and a half decades since Teddy Roosevelt was president and the Ford Model T was introduced, only two American men -- both of whom, as it happens, live in Boulder -- have won gold medals in international marathon competition.

Most people, non-runners included, could peg the first of the pair without a lot of mental exertion. Frank Shorter, the cerebral, light-footed distance man who put the town on the running map, quit competing years ago, exiting with gold and silver Olympic medals on his chest, and his name, like only a handful of American athletes before him -- Ali to boxing, LeMond to biking -- practically synonymous with his sport.

Mark Plaatjes never enjoyed that sort of recognition. Yet at his best, Plaatjes ran faster than Frank Shorter did in either of his Olympic victories. He became Shorter's sole heir at the 1993 World Championships, when his come-from-behind victory gave the U.S. its first gold medal in the marathon since Shorter's dramatic performance in Munich two decades earlier. No American marathoner had won a gold medal for 64 years before Shorter did; none has won one since Plaatjes.

Indeed, Plaatjes's best recorded times for the 26-plus-mile contest would have won any number of Olympic medals over the past twenty years. The tragedy -- and the explanation for his near-anonymity outside the running community -- is that he never got the chance to compete in the Games, a glaring omission the running world is poorer for.

The reason had little to do with the nuts and bolts of covering 26.2 miles, for Plaatjes was always focused, always prepared. "Mark was not the smoothest runner I've ever seen," says Amby Burfoot, the winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon and now the executive editor of Runner's World magazine. "But he was extremely aggressive, and one of the hardest-working runners out there."

Rather, his absence from the Olympic Games had everything to do with politics. As the son of a black father and Portuguese mother, Plaatjes was considered a colored man under the unyielding rules of race in South Africa, where he was born and spent his childhood. Still, he managed to win the first of what would be three national marathon titles at the tender age of seventeen. His talent caught the attention of U.S. collegiate athletic directors, and in 1981 Plaatjes won a scholarship to the University of Georgia. He stayed in Athens for only two years -- he still holds that school's 10,000-meter record -- before returning home to be with his family after his father's death.

He finished his education back in South Africa, earning a degree in physical therapy. And he kept running, faster and faster. In 1985, in Port Elizabeth, at the age of 22, he covered 26.2 miles in an astonishing two hours, eight minutes and 58 seconds.

Internationally, however, Plaatjes's place of birth was heavy baggage for a distance runner to carry. South Africa's system of apartheid made the country an international pariah. This was especially true within the sporting world, where South African athletes were banned from competing in most high-profile events, including the Olympics and World Championships.

The boycott denied Plaatjes an opportunity at the 1984 Summer Games. In 1985, when organizers of the Boston Marathon asked him to compete in that prestigious race, apartheid protesters forced them to revoke the invitation. In 1988, the Olympic Games were again off limits for South African athletes.

That same year Plaatjes sought asylum in the United States, a decision he says was based on his young family's best interests, not his career's. After a brief stint in Illinois he settled in Boulder, which, thanks to Shorter, had become a mecca for runners in training.

Despite his new address, international track-and-field officials ruled that Plaatjes would have to wait five years before he could compete under American colors. The wait turned excruciating when, in 1992, South African athletes were at last permitted to compete in the Olympic Games. This time around Plaatjes was a man without a country. No longer a citizen of South Africa, yet still a year away from the end of his U.S. waiting period, he could only watch again as a third Olympics passed him by.

He ran where he could, though, and usually was among the top finishers. In 1991 he won the Los Angeles Marathon, covering the course in two hours, ten minutes and 29 seconds. It would be nearly a decade before anyone again ran the L.A. race at that speed.

On July 24, 1993, Plaatjes officially became a citizen of the United States. The World Track and Field Championships were held exactly three weeks later in Stuttgart, Germany. It was Plaatjes's first international competition and, after nearly a decade of waiting, he wasn't about to waste it.