By Joe Battaglia, @joebattaglia75
(c) 2014 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved, used with permission.
PRAGUE (04-Apr) -- As a schoolboy in South Africa, Gladwin Mzazi envisioned himself representing his country at the highest levels of athletics like his idol, Hendrick Ramaala, the 2004 TCS New York City Marathon champion.
The sport's changing landscape back home, however, has made that dream more difficult to achieve.
So he comes here to the Czech capital knowing that the cobblestone roads possess not only medieval charm but also, potentially, the key to unlocking his future. A fast time in Saturday's Sportisimo Prague Half Marathon could begin to open doors for him on the global road racing circuit.
"Coming here I am hoping to run my PB again, hopefully sub-61," Mzazi said during a press call at the Running Mall. "The time for me is very much important because it opens the door for the future. If I can run 60 and finish outside the top 10, I will be happy. If I run 61 and finish in the top five, I will probably be disappointed. Ideally, I would like to run 60 and finish in the top five."
Mzazi got his start in athletics while he was in primary school. It wasn't something that he took particularly seriously, but it did have its benefits socially. But in 2005, he won the 3000m at the South African Youth Games in 8:19.15 and performed well at the national cross country championships later that year. It was then that the 17-year-old caught the eye of coach Michael Seme.
Seme, who guided Caster Semenya to 800m gold at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, urged Mzazi to train under him at Vaal University of Technology and later Tshwana University of Technology. That same year, he helped Mzazi win the 10,000m in 28:21.44 at the World University Games in Belgrade.
When Seme was appointed coach at the University of Pretoria the following year, Mzazi said he "was busy with my studies so I could not go with him. I finished my degree (in sports management first, and then followed two years ago."
But that was not the only conundrum staring Mzazi down.
With Athletics South Africa embroiled in an international human-rights controversy following its handling of Semenya and the gender ambiguity accusations that engulfed her emergence, the governing body lost much of its corporate backing, which fled for the positive press associated with the commercially-successful marathons and ultra-races that have become so popular in South Africa.
"We've had some problems with sponsors pulling out of the federation," Mzazi said, "so for short races there are no sponsors because the companies invest more in the events that manage better media coverage, like Two Oceans and Comrades.
"For us track guys, we don't have the funding to make a living solely from track. When I came to Europe it was the federation who was paying for my tickets and everything, but since the federation lost sponsors they are not assisting anyone. That's when I said, 'Maybe I will shift my focus to the road running.'"
Mzazi made his half-marathon debut at the 2011 World University Games in Shenzen, China, finishing fifth in 1:07:32. The following year, he finished third in the Cape Town Half in 1:01:38 and finished 18th at the World Half-Marathon Championships in Kavarna in very hot conditions.
Last year, Mzazi raced five half-marathons, winning gold at the World University Games in Kazan, Russia in 1:03:37, and recording a new personal best of 1:01:12 during a seventh-place finish in New Delhi in December. But earlier in the year, Mzazi only managed to finish fourth at the national championships in Cape Town.
Despite his experience, he was omitted from the team that represented South Africa at the World Half Marathon Championships in Copenhagen last weekend. Without him, South Africa's team of Lusapho April (third in the 2013 TCS New York City Marathon), Elroy Gelant and Stephen Mokoka finished a respectable fourth as a team.
Having already missed out on a high-visibility global event, Mzazi finds himself fighting for respectability, knowing full well the nature of the sport's domino effect.
"It means a lot to do my best in this race," he said. "If I do well, maybe that will allow me to attempt a full marathon later this year. If I run well in a fall marathon, maybe I can stay with the marathon and test myself before the 2016 Olympics, which is my ultimate goal. Perhaps I could get to run the marathon at the World Champs, which would give me a chance to see how I could do in a major championship."
Mzazi said his training for this race since January has gone well and he is "in sub-61 shape, for sure." He cautioned that "breaking 60 minutes might be too much to ask from me."
Ramaala, who ran 59:20 in Lisbon in 2000, is the only South African to ever run sub-60 for the half, a feat he managed twice, both times in Lisbon.
Should things not go well, Mzazi said he will turn his attention back to the track and begin working toward qualifying for the South African team in the 5000m and 10,000m for the 2015 Worlds in Beijing.
But on the eve of the race, his outlook remains positive.
"I don't feel pressured at all," he said. "Running fast will just give me better options."