Taken off the streets of Mbekweni, Luvo Manyonga now wants to go for gold in Rio
Luvo Manyonga showed up at former Olympic champion Ryk Neethling’s office at the Val de Vie Estate outside Paarl with wide eyes and a pale face one sunny morning.
His friend had been shot, the young man said with a shaky voice, and who knew if Manyonga himself would be able to escape the dusty streets of Mbekweni, Cape Town, alive.
Mbekweni, the place where all his talent and the hope of a bright future were going up in the smoke of tik pipes and guns.
“We didn’t know what to do with him,” Neethling, who tried to take the young man under his wing, said last week.
“He would stay with us for a while and, just as you were beginning to think things were going better, he would disappear, back into the slums of Mbekweni, to the tik and the rubbish. And then if you found him again ... there were times when he literally looked grey around the mouth, close to death.
“That he is still alive is already miraculous. But if he makes the finals in the Rio Olympics, somebody has to make a film about his life.”
We spoke to Manyonga at Sascoc House on Thursday, minutes after it was confirmed that he would report to the starting line of the long jump event at the Olympic Games in Rio. And if you didn’t know his background, you would never guess the battles he’s fought.
There are no lines on his young face. His eyes are sparkly and he’s hopping around like the Energizer Bunny. But the marks of Mbekweni’s madness remain not on his body, but on his heart, his psyche and his world view.
“I’ve been to hell and back,” said the 25-year-old long jumper. “How close have I been to death? Ten percent away, maybe – close, very close.
“But, you know, it made me stronger because I believe there is a reason that I am still alive. If it wasn’t God’s plan, I would have been dead by now. Now I’m living and every day I see how I’m growing and getting well. Now I know what I’m living for.”
No one could’ve predicted that Manyonga’s life would take the twists and turns that it has when he was crowned junior world champion in 2010.
When he beat Khotso Mokoena, Olympic silver medallist, at the SA Championships on top of that, his path to greatness seemed wide open.
But back home, his people only saw dollar signs. In 2011, when he finished fifth at the World Championship, he took home R80 000 – an unheard of amount of money in the township he grew up in.
Things began going off the rails.
One puff of tik led to another and another and another ... and he also got a girl pregnant.
Before he knew it, Manyonga’s life was spiralling to nowhere. Early last year, while he was dreaming of his Olympic debut, he was suspended for 18 months after testing positive for methamphetamine. His dreams were in pieces.
But there were still people who believed in Luvo. Neethling and John McGrath – the top Irish rower and fitness coach – did everything they could to get him out of Mbekweni.
“We even thought of sending him to Cuba, because there are a lot of top high jumpers there and he would have been far away from the bad influences here,” said Neethling.
Neethling “has been to 57 countries in 30 years”, but he has never seen anybody with “as much raw talent” as Luvo.
McGrath and Neethling’s attempt to rescue Luvo didn’t bear fruit, but shortly afterwards Gideon Sam, Sascoc’s president, intervened.
That was the turning point, said Manyonga.
“He came to me in Paarl, because he believed there was greatness in me. He said that he only saw good things in my future, but only if I allowed him to take me to another place.”
Sam said he visited the township with the idea of speaking to Manyonga’s parents.
“But it was at that point that I saw he was in a dysfunctional family. And he said ‘let’s go sit there in the stadium’ and he told me: ‘I was a junior, I won, and then suddenly I had to buy everyone food. And when I competed, my mother said she wanted this much money.’
“It was then that I decided that we’re going to ask the High Performance Centre in Pretoria to help, because Luvo had to get out of here.”
But he is still worried, said the Sascoc president.
“Look, if he makes it through qualification, he will come and sleep in my room the night before the finals. I will tell my wife, sorry, we’ll have to find you a room next door because I have to keep an eye on Luvo. If he goes missing now, all our efforts will [have been] for nothing.”
But Manyonga doesn’t want to run away any more. He’s got something to live for again, the Olympic podium – and his son, Lundokuhle.
“He is four and a half and he is my biggest motivation. He’s the first thing I think of when I get up in the morning. He lives in Bloemfontein with his grandmother so I only see him about twice a month, but I’d do anything for him.
“I have to make sure his future looks different than his father’s past and I want to make it bright,” said Manyonga.
But Manyonga’s own future is also looking bright these days. In Pretoria, he has flourished. In March, he exceeded the qualification requirement for Rio twice in a single week – first with a jump of 8.20m and then a career best of 8.30m.
“My big dream is to stand on the podium, but the first goal is the final round, because that’s where anything can happen. And that will come because there is a giant leap in my legs and I have God on my side.”