Johannesburg - Athletics South Africa (ASA) vice-president Hendrick Ramaala says he is concerned that runners at the South African Marathon Championships in Oudtshoorn last week failed to qualify for this year's IAAF World Championships in Moscow, Russia, in August.
A small field of 109 athletes completed the race, which was used as part of the selection process for the SA marathon team, with athletes chasing qualifying times of 2:17:00 for the men and 2:43:00 for the women.
Benedict Moeng won the men's race in a pedestrian time of 2:17:32, missing the qualifying mark by 32 seconds.
Cornelia Joubert, who won the women's event in 2:46:13, was more than three minutes outside the required time.
Ramaala bemoaned the current system used by local clubs and said proper support structures, geared towards producing runners who were able to compete at an international level and not only in local competitions, needed to be implemented before it was too late.
"The club system is not effective in producing world class runners," said Ramaala, who won the 2004 New York Marathon.
"The system is flawed because it does not focus on quality. They are more concerned about marketing their brands than pouring money into developing international runners.
“These days the focus for the clubs is the ultra distances, like the Comrades and Two Oceans marathons. Clubs are only interested in preparing runners for those races and that's a problem."
Ramaala said there were athletes in his training group who belonged to professional clubs and they were stepping up in distance too early.
"The dream should be to get to the World Championships and Olympics and not ultra-marathons."
Ramaala, who earned silver medals at the World Half Marathon Championships in 1998 and 1999, and holds the national records over 10 000m on the track and 21.1km on the road, said a lot of changes had been made on the domestic circuit in recent years, with the mining industry withdrawing its support of road running.
"Now runners are forced to work full time instead of focussing on running," he said.
"Most of the runners are based in the city and are frustrated. They are more concerned about bread and butter issues."
Ramaala believed changes needed to be implemented in South Africa before runners dropped further behind international standards.
He stressed that South Africa could learn from other countries, such as Kenya and Ethiopia, who gave their athletes the support they needed.
Last year alone, 24 athletes from east African countries dipped under two hours, six minutes over the 42.2km standard marathon distance.
No South African has run under two hours, eight minutes since Ramaala clocked 2:07:44 at the 2009 London Marathon.
"We are not yet doomed. The talent is there but there is no support.
"What needs to happen is that runners must be looked after like back in the day, given basic support, getting the right coaches and introducing training camps that will focus on the Olympic distances.
"We need to train them here and then take them overseas, and they must be based that side, and that will get our runners to that international level, but no one is ready to foot that bill."
James Evans, the president of ASA, echoed Ramaala's feelings about a lack of support, but he was confident the sport could lift itself from its current slump.
"We are not as strong as we were 10 years ago, but our depth is building and we are confident that we can develop a strong group of runners in the years to come," Evans said.
"We as ASA are building the South African circuit to be a strong running circuit and are trying to partner with strong national events which we hope will add value to our country's runners."