Precious pocket Hercules

2008-06-04 00:00

Precious, a feature film based on the life story of former Pietermaritzburg resident and Olympian Precious McKenzie, MBE, is scheduled to begin shooting on location in South Africa later this year.

The diminutive (1,25 metres) and engaging McKenzie, once the country’s best weightlifter and, kilogram for kilogram, possibly the strongest man on Earth, fled to England in the mid-sixties when the apartheid regime would not let him compete internationally. McKenzie, who turns 72 this month, went on to become the first man in history to win four consecutive Commonwealth Games gold medals — three for England and one for New Zealand, his adopted homeland.

McKenzie first came to the public’s attention when, because of his skin colour, he was overlooked for a place on the South African team for the 1958 Empire Games and again for the 1960 Rome Olympics despite being the best lifter, black or white, in his division. When he was finally selected for international competition, he boldly and controversially refused to join the team when he learnt he could not travel with the team and could not wear the full Springbok colours.

Since fleeing his beloved homeland, McKenzie, who is part Zulu, has triumphed on the world stage in his chosen sport, visited more countries than he can remember, mixed with royalty, raised a family with his South African-born wife and received an MBE from Queen Elizabeth II.

Not content to rest on his laurels, he continued competing until he hit 70 and still holds the World Masters powerlifting title. His legendary powerlifting feats have earned him a place in the World Powerlifting Hall of Fame in the United States.

The triumph he treasures most occurred on December 5, 2006, when he was formally inducted into the South African Sports Hall of Fame. “Man, for my achievements to be recognised by my homeland was a dream come true,” McKenzie says. “Finally, I have got recognition from my own people.”

These days, McKenzie is as well known for quick wit as he is for his sporting exploits. Of his South African Sports Hall of Fame achievement, he says, “You’re always remembered when you’re dead. I’m just lucky people are remembering me now, while I’m alive.”

Often referred to as a Pocket Hercules, those who know McKenzie have likened him to a miniature Muhammad Ali. The two sporting greats met at a charity event in London in 1974 — the same year McKenzie received his MBE and Ali won his “Rumble in the Jungle” bout in Africa. Having heard that McKenzie was listed in the Guinness Book of Records for his incredible strength, Ali wagered there was no way the little man could lift him. Without missing a beat, McKenzie hoisted Ali into the air on his shoulders. The moment was captured by a press photographer. Before the evening was over, Ali quietly conceded to the guests that he’d finally met his match.

The people behind Precious, the movie, believe they have a powerful film in the making. Lance and James Morcan, the New Zealand father-and-son writing team who wrote the screenplay, are in dialogue with prospective film financiers and distributors in the U.S., UK and South Africa.

The producers hope to announce the attachment of an A-list Hollywood director to helm the film soon and several well-known actors have expressed interest in playing the lead role. Jada Pinkett Smith (Ali, Collateral) and Sir Anthony Hopkins will shortly be approached regarding supporting roles.

Shooting locations for Precious include Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

Who was Precious McKenzie?

Precious McKenzie was born in the Red Cross Hospital, Durban, in 1936. At the age of three he was hospitalised with complications due to a fever and his remaining chest condition was pronounced incurable.

The same year his father and breadwinner Joseph was killed by a crocodile in the Limpopo river. Unable to cope with poverty and the loss of her husband his mother, Christina, turned to alcohol. McKenzie and his sister, Gloria, were neglected. They were forced to scavenge for food in the adjoining shanty towns. McKenzie often performed handstands and cartwheels in return for food. Eventually, welfare officers placed the children in foster care. They were mistreated and abused.

At the age of 11, McKenzie was sent on a 1 600-kilometre train journey to a Catholic mission in the town of Pofadder. There, one of the priests, Father Franklin, recognised and encouraged McKenzie’s athletic ability.

McKenzie returned to Pietermaritzburg at 17 and worked in a local shoe factory, proving to be a stand-out employee and popular co-worker. But McKenzie’s ambition was to work in a circus. He laboured at this dream in Steve’s Gym, working out at 5.30 am every day, but the dream was thwarted because his skin was the wrong colour. Fortunately, Kevin Stent, trainer and coach at Steve’s Gym, encouraged him to try weightlifting and he took to the sport with a natural flair. In 1958, he won the Natal Bantamweight weightlifting title.

However, McKenzie was not selected for the Empire Games the same year because of his skin colour and again in 1960, when an all-white team was sent to the Rome Olympics. By then he was regarded as South Africa’s best weightlifter, but was not granted full Springbok colours.

When he was finally chosen for international competition in 1963, he boldly refused to join the team. Instead McKenzie decided to emigrate to England where he continued training and competing. Records kept tumbling and soon his success attracted national interest. In 1966, Britain fast-tracked his citizenship and two years later McKenzie represented England in the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica, promptly winning a gold medal in the bantamweight division.

He was awarded the MBE in 1974 by Queen Elizabeth II.

McKenzie competed in four Commonwealth Games and three Olympics (1968, 1972 and 1976) representing Britain. He also went on to become a five-time World Powerlifting Champion.

As a result of the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand, he decided to settle in New Zealand and won his fourth Commonwealth gold representing New Zealand at the age of 42.

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