How Willie Mtolo Broke the Rules, In Hotels and In Running
In 1992, Willie Mtolo stunned the athletics world – and almost certainly, the majority of South African sports fans – when he burst to victory at the New York City Marathon.
Mtolo wasn’t exactly an unknown going into the race, having attended the NYC Marathon in 1991 as a non-participating guest of the event; but such was the novelty of South Africa’s return to international sport that more than once, race commentators mistakenly identified him as ‘the Kenyan runner’.
Earlier in 1992, having missed out on the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona due to illness and for personal reasons, Mtolo had run his debut international marathon, claiming first place at the slightly less celebrated Enschede Marathon in the Netherlands.
The phutu cooking had set off the smoke alarms. Hundreds of hotel guests were piling out onto the packed New York streets.
The New York City Marathon, already in existence for over 20 years and championed as the biggest marathon in the world, was a different beast altogether, with a larger, more aggressively talented elite field.
But fuelled by emotion, the belief that victory was his destiny, and his beloved phutu pap (which Mtolo, his wife and his manager Ray de Vries had smuggled into the United States), Mtolo won the NYC Marathon, dramatically announcing South Africa’s return to international sport.
From the mid-1960s onwards, various world sporting bodies began imposing sanctions on South African teams and athletes, due to the then government’s apartheid policies.
In an athletics and road-running context, South Africa was formally expelled from the International Olympics Committee (IOC) in 1970; while in the same year, World Athletics (then known as the IAAF) also suspended South African participation at IAAF-sanctioned events.
When apartheid legislation was repealed on 17 June 1991, sporting bodies around the world began to lift their sanctions on South African athletes and teams. A whole new world opened up for our sportsmen and -women. The South African cricket team were the first national team to travel overseas, invited by India to a One-Day International series in 1991. India in turn became the first foreign team to tour post-apartheid South Africa, in 1992.
Told linearly, and without the gripping titbits about behind-the-scenes machinations, South Africa’s return to international sport would appear to have been a reasonably straightforward affair. Of course, as with almost everything happening in South Africa at that time, wheeling and dealing was the name of the game.
For Willie Mtolo and numerous other athletes, a return to international action took slightly longer than for their cricketing counterparts – largely due to issues of timing, as well as a squabble between the IAAF, the IOC, and various foreground and background players.
The meeting of men
Mtolo’s story is inextricably linked with that of his former manager, Ray de Vries: a one-time hotel owner who stumbled into the world of distance running by simply being the white guy in the right place – at the weirdest time.
De Vries, now a Cape Town-based entrepreneur, likens their partnership, friendship and incredible success to something bordering on the mystical, something that could never have been predicted or scripted (ironically, a Hollywood production has been scripted, but has been stuck in development hell for longer than it takes a backmarker to finish Comrades).
In the mid-1980s De Vries owned the Hillcrest Hotel, which sat on the 32km mark of the Comrades Marathon down run. At that stage of his life, De Vries’s involvement in road running was limited to Comrades race-day functions at his hotel (“It was the only day we made any money,” he says), and the semi-sponsorship of a local running crew, aptly named – rather typically, for a KwaZulu-Natal crowd – Jog & Grog.
That all changed when Willie Mtolo arrived unannounced at the Hillcrest Hotel, and asked the receptionist for a room. He’d been sent there by the chairman of a running club in the area who had noticed Mtolo’s potential.
This being the mid-1980s, with apartheid laws such as the Group Areas Act in full swing, De Vries was not allowed to have black guests at his hotel. But he cared little for the laws of the day, and checked Mtolo in. “I’ll never forget: Room 11A. We put Willie in there.”
Soon after, De Vries received a call from the running club chairman, asking him to take care of Willie. He duly obliged, but saw little of his guest for the first month.
“Then, one morning, I get a knock on my office door. Willie is standing there – this little Zulu guy, with an envelope in his hand. I look at it, and I can see it’s an invoice from my hotel, for his month’s stay as a permanent resident. I look at it again: R125 for rent, dinner, bed and breakfast, GST – 11 per cent, in those days. And I say, ‘That looks right to me.’
“Then Willie says to me: ‘But you said I could stay here!’”
In that moment, De Vries realised this was a meeting of two very disparate worlds. Mtolo believed he was staying at no cost, while De Vries thought he’d been doing his bit to stick it to the apartheid government by allowing a black man to be a paying guest in his hotel.
“We were both on totally different wavelengths. I remember thinking, ‘That’s what’s wrong with this country, no one is connecting on the same level.’
“Anyway, Willie was such a warm character, with an honest, open face; so I said to him, ‘What are you doing here, anyway? Why do you want to stay here?’
“And he said: ‘I want to be the first black man to win the Comrades Marathon.’”
By this time, Mtolo had run a 2:08:15 at the Port Elizabeth Marathon (still his 42km PB, set in 1986). But De Vries was blissfully unaware of Mtolo’s running pedigree.
“When he told me he wanted to win Comrades, I immediately thought, ‘This kid has delusions of grandeur.’ But there was something about his determination that spoke to me. So I said, ‘Okay, Willie – I’m going to support you.’”
With the political drama unfolding in the country at the time, De Vries and Mtolo’s new partnership soon raised the hackles of the less enlightened Hillcrest residents. De Vries was harassed at home in the evenings, and a fake bomb was found in his hotel the night before municipal elections (where De Vries was running as an independent candidate).
“Hillcrest was a tiny little place, and people were just pissed off with me. But we persevered.”
The Comrades makes comrades
Over time, Mtolo became part of the hotel furniture, and also grew more popular in the local community. On the eve of the 1989 Comrades Marathon, the Daily News dispatched a reporter to interview Mtolo – with De Vries still largely oblivious to the runner’s talent.
“I said to the journalist, ‘Does this guy even have a chance?’”
The journalist replied with a story: when Mtolo first arrived in Hillcrest, he ran (and won) the local time trial; and was immediately accused of cheating, because of the scorching time he had set. So the next time Mtolo ran the time trial, he was monitored closely. And duly broke the club record that he had set the previous time.
The journalist also told De Vries of Mtolo’s battle with Zithulele Sinqe at the 1986 Port Elizabeth Marathon (also the South African Marathon Championships), where Sinqu pipped Mtolo to the post by a matter of seconds.
“Although this all sounded impressive to me, being a complete running outsider I still had no real concept of just how good Willie was.”
On Comrades Marathon race day De Vries and his staff were overwhelmed by thirsty, hungry patrons, eager to be part of the Comrades action at the Hillcrest Hotel. But while feeding and watering guests, the hotel staff were also keeping an eye on Mtolo’s progress.
“One of my staff, Lucas, comes to me; and says, ‘Mnumzane, you won’t believe it. The guy from room 11A? Willie? The chef from the Rob Roy Hotel says he phoned the wine steward from the Botha’s Hill Hotel, who then phoned us to tell us our guy is winning!”
Much like it is today, but with its fame even further heightened in the 80s due to ongoing international sporting restrictions, the Comrades Marathon was the biggest show in town.
“We were packed – but my staff just upped and left to support Willie. We saw him coming up the rise; Willie was buzzing. Everyone was screaming and shouting, slapping him on the back.
“Now, all those people who’d been giving me shit because I was a white guy harbouring a black guy, suddenly Willie was okay, and I was okay, because he was doing well.”
Mtolo ran towards the crowds, lapping up the cheers; but when he saw De Vries, he almost came to a standstill.
“I said, ‘Willie, for fuck’s sake! Run, man!’”
As scholars of local running will know, Mtolo was destined not to go into the history books as the first black Comrades Marathon winner. That honour went to Sam Tshabalala, who had run a neck-and-neck race with Mtolo on the day; and who eventually passed him one final time when, due to cramps, Mtolo was reduced to walking, with only a handful of kilometres to go.
De Vries raced to the finish to meet his man. “I found Willie in the medical tent. The first thing he says is, ‘I’m sorry.’ I say to him, ‘For what?!’ Willie says to me, ‘I said I would win, and I didn’t. I’m sorry.’
“I think he might have been worried that I was going to give him a bill for the room!”
The first steps to New York
De Vries drove Mtolo back to the hotel that day.
And this is where the long journey to New York City Marathon glory truly began, with as many uphill battles as could be found on the Comrades route. During the drive, the pair opened up to each other – “The conversation of my life,” De Vries calls it.
Despondent after his second-place finish, Mtolo doubted his ability to claim the Comrades title. “In that moment, I said to Willie, ‘Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody is prepared to die. Today, you died; so you’ve bought the ticket to heaven. The future will be good.’”
Mtolo then asked De Vries to manage him full time. “I like the way you talk,” he told De Vries. “It helps me.”
The next morning De Vries agreed to take on the manager role full time, insisting they put people before business as a guiding principle, and telling Mtolo that they needed to get to know each other better. This, he reasoned, could be achieved by moving with Mtolo to his home village of Kilimon in Kwasmashayilanga (‘the place that hits the sun’, in Zulu), near Underberg.
“I was also looking for something deeper than selling beer to pisscats in a hotel; and I reckoned, this could be it,” says De Vries.
Comfortably ensconced in his new surroundings – after meeting the rest of Mtolo’s clan, and convincing Mtolo’s father, Ndabazabantu, that he had the runner’s best interests at heart – De Vries began to learn more about Mtolo. He learnt that as a youngster, Mtolo had asked for a bike to ride the 16km to school and back.
Unable to afford one, Ndabazabantu told his son to run to school. When Mtolo asked what he should do if he was going to be late for school, his father replied sagely: “Run faster.”
Ndabazabantu bestowed a clan name on De Vries: Bafo, meaning ‘brother’. And De Vries in turn reiterated his commitment to Mtolo’s goals by impressing upon the runner and his father that although Mtolo was exceptionally talented, to reach the top he would need a partner.
“I called this the ‘un-alone’. I knew you couldn’t get to the top without a partner or being a team. You look at the best teams, the top achievers; they all have a confidante, or a partner, who helps them on their journey to the top. When Willie and I were together, we were ‘un-alone’.”
During this time, De Vries contacted the New York City Marathon. South African athletes were still banned from competing internationally; but rumours and rumblings suggested that apartheid’s days were numbered, and that sporting sanctions would be lifted soon.
“My plan was to take Willie to the world. So in 1989 I contacted the New York City Marathon, and told them I had a runner who would set the race alight. I sent off a fax – nine rand a fax, back then!– and the reply I received didn’t explicitly laugh me off, but… the tone was, ‘Ag, shame – thanks for getting in touch, we appreciate it.’” De Vries shrugs his shoulders.
But Mtolo’s legend was growing; and partly thanks to the political instability in South Africa then, prominent foreign media – embedded in the country, and covering local conflict –
picked up on his story. The Washington Post ran a feature article on Mtolo, while the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) started
filing a documentary.
“ABC was our big breakthrough. They were covering the riots in South Africa at the time, and they heard about me and Willie. They wanted to come to the hotel for an interview – but instead, we took them to Willie’s village. The scene, the setting and his story just blew them away. It would eventually put us on the map.”
In February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
“Things were happening, things were changing; so I got on to the New York City Marathon again. I got a slightly better response this time, but sanctions were still in place, so they weren’t quite welcoming us with open arms. The communications between us were cordial, but it was all very official. I’d yet to make an actual connection with someone at the event.”
At the same time, many others in South African sport were also seeing light at the end of the sanctions tunnel. In the world of local running, it created an environment with many previously unknown (or even non-existent) athletics bodies and clubs popping up and claiming to represent athletes – all so they could eventually claim a prized seat on a possible, yet-to-be-formed future committee.
“I had never heard of half these people,” says De Vries. “But now they were crawling out the woodwork. And I had been at every race, with Willie and the other athletes, so I knew it was all bullshit.”
It was around this time that the politics of the day intruded on the De Vries and Mtolo partnership. Within South African running, the groups that now contested for power included the then-official South African Amateur Athletics Union (now the actual official body known as Athletics South Africa), the new fly-by-night groups and clubs, and the self-appointed South African Road Running Association (SARRA).
“SARRA had somehow formed, and started to call the shots on road running – even though they were never recognised by the IAAF,” says De Vries.
In the middle of the power struggle were the athletes, who simply wanted to participate on the world stage; and De Vries, who by now had become a sounding board for many disgruntled local road runners. As negotiations around South Africa’s return to international athletics
progressed, a further power struggle developed between the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The IAAF – at that stage, headed by Primo Nebiolo – and certain factions in South Africa favoured South Africa’s appearance at the 1991 World Athletics Championships in Tokyo; while the IOC and the Interim National Olympic Committee of South Africa (INOCSA), headed by Sam Ramsamy, advocated for South Africa’s return to be scheduled for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. From owning a hotel in Hillcrest and serving beer to thirsty locals, De Vries now found himself one of the central figures in a global tussle.
Through an intermediary, De Vries met with Sam Ramsamy at the Wanderers Club, on the eve of a scheduled appearance on the TV show Agenda. “Sam told me that Juan Samaranch, the president of the IOC, wanted South Africa to be at Barcelona, and for that to be the official return to international athletics. He said that his (Ramsamy’s) job was to ensure we got the team to Barcelona.”
At the same time, Nebiolo was pushing for South Africa to appear at the 1991 World Athletics Championships in Tokyo. And as De Vries would discover that evening, after his meeting with Ramsamy, the agenda of the Agenda TV show was also to push for South Africa’s involvement in Tokyo – Nebiolo himself even appeared on the show, via satellite link-up.
South Africa’s athletes had suddenly gone from pariahs to pawns in a political chess game. But when all the shouting was over, Ramsamy and Samaranch got their way: after South African citizens voted to abolish apartheid at the 1992 referendum, South Africa returned to Olympic action.
In between all the political intrigue, De Vries and Mtolo were travelling to the Drakensberg, where Mtolo would carry on with his training.
“While all this crap was going on, I still knew that I had to be doing this. When you know, you know. By then I had sold my hotel and was fully invested in Willie’s career. My family thought I was crazy.”
De Vries had also maintained his line of communication with the New York City Marathon; and in 1991, he and Mtolo were invited to attend the marathon as guests of the organisers.
“Incredibly, Willie’s story had preceded our arrival in New York. Carl Lewis came over to greet us at the Expo, people were asking Willie to autograph things; there was a real interest in the ‘guy who couldn’t run’.”
On race day, Mtolo and De Vries accompanied the elite athletes to the start area.
“We were chatting to the runners, then we moved over to the media bus. Just as the race was about to start, the elite pack turned in unison and waved goodbye to Willie. It’s a moment that still gives me goosebumps when I think about it; we didn’t know if we’d ever be back again,” says De Vries.
After following the race from the media bus, Mtolo disembarked at the finish line to watch the conclusion of the event. At the same time, the ABC documentary crew that had started filming Mtolo’s story years earlier were filming his reaction to the finish. That night the completed documentary aired, with the final shot featuring Willie watching the end of the race, and the closing narration asking if the man in picture could have been the 1991 New York City Marathon winner.
The South African pair were alerted to the documentary’s airing, and watched in their room at the Sheraton on Central Park. Afterwards, Mtolo asked De Vries what he thought. “I told him, ‘I think it’s great, it’s bloody good.’ Then we went out for McDonalds.”
Except they didn’t make it out of the hotel. Downstairs, De Vries and Mtolo found themselves trapped inside, due to a large crowd that had gathered in the gigantic foyer.
Thinking a dignitary of significant standing must have been in town, the pair looked around to see who was causing the commotion. After a few minutes people started shouting, “There he is, there he is!”
“Willie and I turned like TV characters, looking behind us for the ‘star’ – and realised at the same time that everyone was pointing at Willie. People had seen the show on TV, and now all hell had broken loose.”
Wanting to build on the buzz, Anne Roberts, their New York City Marathon liaison, whisked the bewildered South Africans off to parties around New York – culminating in a swanky shindig at the Waldorf on Fifth Avenue, where they soon found themselves on stage in front of an energetic audience.
Encouraged to say a few words, De Vries introduced Mtolo, who had a simple message: “Please, let me run.”
“The crowd went apeshit,” says De Vries. “Then I stood up, and said, ‘I’m not being arrogant, but please let him run. Because when he does run, he will win this race.’ It was the stupidest thing I could have said.”
The big lights will inspire you
A year later, and South Africa was in from the cold on the international sports scene. De Vries received a call from Sam Ramsamy at two in the morning, alerting him that Mtolo would be allowed to participate overseas, and that a South African team would be sent to the Olympics.
The next race on the international calendar was the Stockholm Marathon. But: “When I phoned them to find Willie a place, they basically told me to fuck off,” says De Vries.
Thanks to injury and illness, Mtolo never made it to the Olympics that year either; but De Vries kept looking for international races, eventually finding one in the Netherlands.
“We entered the Enschede Marathon, a small event that happens every two years. We just needed to get Willie into shape for New York – by then, they had finally invited us to run. There was quite a lot of media interest in Willie at the Enschede event, and at the finish there were locals holding up placards saying ‘Hup, Willie, hup!’ (Go, Willie, go!). It was wonderful. We even got appearance money!”
From the Enschede Marathon, which took place just three weeks before the NYC Marathon, Mtolo and De Vries travelled to the United States.
“It was pandemonium. Everybody wanted a piece of Willie. This was the story of the event. Anne Roberts found us at the hotel, and told us she’d never seen a press conference this big at the New York City Marathon.”
And of course, De Vries’s words in 1991 came back to haunt him.
“We sit down at the press conference, and I can feel it coming. The very first question comes from the press: ‘Mr De Vries, last year you said that if Mr Mtolo ran the New York City Marathon, he would win. Do you stand by that comment?’
“I tried to be diplomatic, and say that we were just happy to be there, and that a top 10 would be great. But the journalist persisted: ‘Mr De Vries, you said Mr Mtolo would win the New York City Marathon. Do you stand by that?”
“Eventually, I just said, ‘Yes, of course – Willie will win the New York City Marathon.’”
On the eve of the marathon, Mtolo insisted on preparing his own meal of phutu. De Vries, Mtolo and Mtolo’s wife Fikile had smuggled two packets each into the country.
At the hotel, for health and safety reasons, the staff wouldn’t prepare outside food in the kitchen – but neither would they let trained cook De Vries prepare the meal. So, epitomising the cavalier South African can-do spirit, the trio snuck a hot plate and pot into the hotel room. De Vries then moved on to the cocktail party, to help calm his pre-race nerves.
“I wasn’t the one running, but I was puking everywhere; Willie was calm as can be. So I go to the party – and the next thing, the fire alarm goes off.
“Shit, I think. We’re on the 49th floor – now I have to get Willie down 49 flights, the night before his big day!”
De Vries made his way to their hotel room, only to be greeted by dark clouds – and nothing to do with Mtolo’s mood. The phutu cooking had set off the smoke alarms. Hundreds of hotel guests were piling out onto the packed New York streets.
“The hotel staff came knocking, asking us to evacuate. I told the guy our story, explained that I couldn’t take Willie downstairs. He looked at me dead in the eyes, and said, ‘I know nothing.’ And walked off.
“While this was going on, I could hear Willie and Fikile talking in Zulu, but I missed it. Willie had asked Fikile to finish the cooking! So there we were, the night before Willie’s biggest run – cooking phutu, and dashing into the bathroom every time it started to smoke because there were no smoke detectors in there.”
On race day, Mtolo faced one final hurdle. With the elite bunch eager to get going, they jumped the start cannon by a few seconds – meaning the start cannon could then not be fired, for fear of injuring a runner.
“Willie looked at me as the bunch started moving, and I just shouted, ‘Run, man – run!’”
De Vries and Mtolo had done their homework, and were assisted by 1987 winner Ibrahim Hussein of Kenya with some key course layout information. Hussein had warned Mtolo not to get carried away with the vibrant crowds on the narrow First Avenue. Many an overeager runner had upped their tempo here, only to blow later in the race. Hussein, aware that Mtolo’s strength would be in the hills, also highlighted the Central Park finish as the hilliest part of the race.
“Before the race Willie and I went to Central Park, and he ran drills up that hill. There was a blue bin, and from there he would just explode uphill.” To help Mtolo pace himself, De Vries had marked his water bottles with proteas, so Mtolo could find them in the feed station scrum and remind himself not to get carried away until the ‘hills’.
As the race entered the final few kilometres of Central Park, it was Andres Espinoza (who would go on to win in 1993) in first place and Mtolo in second. At the blue bin, Mtolo kicked and surged past Espinoza – to win. De Vries bolted from a nearby restaurant, where he had been watching the race on television.
“He ran into my arms, and we cried. We just stood there, and we cried. It was impossible. It should never have happened. I let a guy stay in my hotel, and now we were crying on the finish line of the New York City Marathon.”
Willie Mtolo – career highlights
Winner City to City Marathon (50km) 2:47:51
2nd Port Elizabeth Marathon 2:08:15; National Marathon Championships
Winner Cape Town Marathon 2:10:18; National Marathon Championships; winner Durban Marathon 2:14:36
Winner Port Elizabeth Marathon 2:13:13; 2nd Comrades Marathon 05:39:59
Winner Two Oceans Marathon 3:10:51
Winner Peninsula Marathon 2:15:39
Winner Enschede Marathon 2:13:39; winner New York City Marathon 2:09:29
Winner Macau Marathon 2:19:25
2nd Comrades Marathon 05:33:35