20 years is a long road

2014-03-30 14:00

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Thugwane’s marathon gold at the 1996 Olympics was hugely symbolic. He tells Daniel Mothowagae where it all began.

It is coming up on two decades since Josiah Thugwane ­became the first black South African to win Olympic gold in what he describes as a life-changing race.

Marathon running remains close to Thugwane’s heart as City Press discovered during a visit to his home in Thubelihle, about 50km from Witbank in Mpumalanga.

Now 42 and with grey hair starting to show, Thugwane was about to pound the road on his 6am routine morning run: the red earth road doubles up as a comeback trail for Thugwane who, having retired from professional running in 2011, is determined to return, at least to the half-marathon arena.

Thugwane and his old-time friend and training partner Johannes Mahlangu (41) wrapped up the 11km run in just under 41 minutes.

Their course is a winding dirt road that passes a stretch of open veld outside the sprawling township against the backdrop of coal mines and maize farms.

This rural coal mining community is where it all began for Thugwane, who once worked as a machine operator at a local plant and ran at the mines’ athletics meetings.

This was when the humble working man, who never learnt to read and write fluently and who has worked ­variously as a cattle herder and a gardener, discovered he had a gift.

He routinely won races, and the prize for first place was R500.

“It was a better way to make money than the R2.50 a day I used to make as a gardener,” he says.

Back on the red earth road 20 years and a “pot belly” later, the marathon star, who was 25 when he won Olympic gold, curses his unfit state and the nonstop downpours that interrupted his routine throughout March.

“It’s a bit tough but I am getting there. My target is to run 10km in 35 or 36 minutes. It won’t be a bad time for a veteran. My body will get used to it.”

With his daily run over, we return to Thugwane’s Kriel house, which looks almost deserted except for his prized photographs displayed on the wall – one of the moment he crossed the line in Atlanta, the other showing him flanked by former president Nelson Mandela and the team that travelled to Zurich, Switzerland, to make South Africa’s 2004 Olympic bid.

Thugwane’s permanent home is Verena, a village near Marble Hall, where he lives with his wife and three children aged 20, 17 and 15.

He is planning to turn his Kriel house into accommodation for miners to capitalise on the influx of workers for the new mine that is about to be opened nearby.

This is an example of the business-minded side of

Thugwane, who also owns a plot in Bronkhorstspruit where he keeps his livestock – a far cry from the days when he herded cattle to help support his family headed by his maternal grandmother, as they “hopped from farm to farm”.

Thugwane’s properties have all been acquired thanks to the windfall that followed his success at the 1996 Atlanta Games, a race that changed his life in 2 hours, 12 minutes and 36 seconds.

His historic win, he says now, was a bittersweet victory. Despite the “overwhelming welcome” he received on his ­return and the financial stability his win brought him, his success brought trouble too.

“I never had an idea that the Olympics were such a big thing. All I had aimed for was to run for Nelson Mandela because he brought us freedom.

“But on the flip side, the win brought as much trouble to my life as it brought joy to the country. Some people in my community were jealous of my success?...?on some days I woke up to baboon heads mounted on my gate.

“There were several incidents where I was attacked while I was jogging. My attackers knew who I was and they had the impression that I was rich and always carried cash. I had to outpace them when they were in pursuit.”

But Thugwane refused to desert his roots despite security fears around his new-found success. His most precious ­asset – the Olympic gold medal – is stored for safekeeping with a bank that remains a family secret.

He moved to Joburg for a while on the advice of his mentor Jacques Malan, the renowned marathon coach who died shortly before Thugwane was to defended his ­Olympic title at the Sydney Games in 2000. The two met through the

SA marathon team camps for the 1996 Olympics and Malan took Thugwane under his wing.

Their relationship blossomed and Thugwane paused a bit each time he mentioned the man he called a “father figure”.

On the upside, Thugwane’s Atlanta triumph opened many doors and he received regular invitations to run overseas.

“I even experienced running in the snow at a marathon in Chicago, US, a race that I failed to finish as these paperlike things [snow particles] blurred my vision!”

A spate of injuries in late 1997 – first a hamstring and then an Achilles tendon sprain – slowed Thugwane down and after finishing 20th in the 2000 Olympics, his career faltered.

Fame did not change Thugwane a bit, according to ­Mahlangu.

“He is still the same humble person. He is always keen to help runners with stuff like proper running shoes and sometimes money for transport to competitions.”

Thugwane also does his bit for various charities, including the Heroes Walk against HIV/Aids.

He proudly recounts something Mandela once said to him: “You say you’re not educated, but your feet are.”

Personal stats

In the running

Major victories

SA Marathon (1993)

Honolulu Marathon, Hawaii (1995)

Fukuoka Marathon, Japan (1997)

Nagano Marathon, Japan (2002)

Personal bests

1:02.08 (half-marathon, 1995)

2:07.28 (marathon, 1997)

The Atlanta victory sign

“I signalled that the world knows us [South Africa] because of me, Ma-Seven.”

Thugwane says he gave ­himself the nickname. He came into the race as a replacement for Xolile Yawa, who fell ill on the eve of the marathon

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