(This piece is for my book titled Pacesetters: Runners Who Informed Me Best and Inspired Me Most. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from September 1993.)
PLAATJES WINS. Call it a victory for the United States if you wish. Say that the gold-medal drought for U.S. men’s distance runners, stretching back to Frank Shorter’s marathon at the Munich Olympics, ended with another marathon in Germany 21 years later.
This was a rare chance to exercise national running pride. But it was more than that, much more.
Above all else I call it a magnificent victory for Mark Plaatjes, the individual. His was a triumph of personal will over political obstacles and racial injustice.
Plaatjes grew up “coloured” in South Africa. His racial bloodlines are mixed, meaning that he was neither fully black nor white in a country where the battle lines between those races were firmly drawn.
He ran a sub-2:09 marathon there. Yet “in my country I was still a second-class citizen.” Worldwide he was a non-person, barred from racing outside his country.
Plaatjes missed opportunities in South Africa because of his skin tone. He missed them abroad because he was held accountable for South African racial policies, which discriminated against him.
His leaving home to live in the U.S. wasn’t opportunistic. He says of conditions that prompted his move, “South Africa was under a state of emergency, and people were being killed left, right and center. They were detained and disappeared.”
Plaatjes was warned he’d be killed if he continued to run races. “I couldn’t have done a thing in my life if it wasn’t for running,” he recalls. “They asked me to give it up, and that was too much.”
Mark, his wife and young daughter (they’ve since had a second girl) came to the U.S. in January 1988. This wasn’t his first time here, and the country hadn’t been too welcoming the first time.
He hadn’t adjusted well to the American South during his brief stay at the University of Georgia. Later he’d come to run the Boston Marathon, only to be denied entry at the last moment because of his nationality.
After his move to Boulder he ran more freely in this country. He won marathons in Los Angeles and Columbus.
But his appeals for early citizenship, which might have allowed him to compete in the 1991 World Championships and 1992 Olympics, were turned down. He was told to wait the customary five years to become a citizen.
His time for world-class racing was running down. He was now 32, and his PR dated from 1985.
Meanwhile conditions back home changed. South Africa returned to world competition.
Plaatjes could have decided to go back to his homeland. Either that or he could have retired and gone to medical school (which, as a practicing physical therapist, he’d considered for years.)
But he preferred to stay in the U.S. and to run internationally as an American. His citizenship papers came through less than a month before he was to leave for the 1993 Worlds in Stuttgart, Germany.
Other U.S. marathoners said no to this trip. The entire men’s 1992 Olympic team begged off, and the women went without a third runner.
Plaatjes wouldn’t have missed this chance. “It will be the end of a long journey,” he said before leaving for Germany. “It will give me a sense of belonging, a sense of identification. From 1988 to this July  I’ve been stateless.
“You can never divorce yourself from the country you grew up in. But I’ve made my commitment to the United States.”
Some may say of his victory in Stuttgart, “Yes, but the best men weren’t there or didn’t finish.” Some may say of him, “Yes, he won, but he’s not truly an American because he wasn’t born here.”
I say that the runners who weren’t there were like those who dropped out. They lost by default.
I say Mark Plaatjes is as fine an individual as we could ever have representing this country. He chose to be here.
UPDATE. The ever-other-year World Championships are second only to the Olympics in quality of competition, and a close second at that – and clearly the best as a pure track meet rather than a political showcase and media extravaganza.
Yet world champions aren’t the gods that Olympic gold medalists are. That’s why you might not have been able to name the first U.S. winner of a world marathon title.
Mark Plaatjes remains in Boulder, working as a physical therapist and staying active in that city’s vibrant running community. He’s still the only American gold medalist in a World Championships Marathon.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]