Josia Thugwane: The Man South Africa Forgot

Nearly 20 years ago, Josia Thugwane overcame a cruel birthright of illiteracy and apartheid to beat the world’s greatest distance runners. But he couldn’t overcome the neglect of a country that needs his inspiration now.


Mike Wise (ESPN), Special Reporting by Michael Mandt & Images by Getty/Gallo Images |

BRONKHORSTSPRUIT: The picture in an aging, tan-brick farmhouse, at the end of a long, dusty road on the savannah, distils the essence of a national hero. In it, the man raises his arms toward the heavens, his index finger and thumb appearing to make the victory sign. It is 1996. He is standing in the middle of several thousand black children in Coca-Cola T-shirts and baseball caps, some with their mouths agape cheering, others looking stoically into the lens.

Nineteen years later, Josia Thugwane looks at the photo, competing for space on his living room wall with a mural of himself and Nelson Mandela. He still doesn’t know whether he affected lives that day.

The Coke endorsement deal ended more than a decade ago. No-one from Athletics South Africa (ASA) has called in years to ask the famous Olympian to speak to kids, make an appearance, or mentor a promising runner; much less attend any upcoming 20th-anniversary function.

Instead, as on many other days with family, he will help Zodwa (his wife of almost 20 years) serve plates of white rice, lightly fried chicken and thick, brown gravy. Then he will channel-surf: the news, South African soap operas, and soccer. Before dusk, he will tend the cows.

Thugwane is now the embodiment of what Robert Frost once said: “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

“If a man is a national hero, but his own country doesn’t remember him, is he really a national hero? Does his life mean more than one touch-the-gods moment?”

Thugwane “reinforced our pride and confidence as a nation”, said Mandela back then. Almost 20 years later, he sits quietly in the living room of his single-story rambler on a 75-acre plot of land in Gauteng, uncertain of what constitutes a memorable life.

Do you still run?
“Marathons?” Josia asks. “No, no, no. Soon, I may train for 10-K.”
Can you run now?
“Now? Outside?”

Thugwane suddenly jumps up and walks purposefully down the hall, into his bedroom. He reaches into his top closet shelf for a folded tracksuit, his country’s green, gold, black and red colours emblazoned across the chest. Underneath the five interlocking rings, in black embroidery, it reads: “South Africa Olympic Team Atlanta 1996”.

One of the last remnants from his past, the warm-ups he wore on the last night of the Centennial Games, fit snugly on his small frame. Slightly frayed, much tighter now, they still feel good, comfortable; like the country he knew back then.

Before the on-camera interview begins and the videographers begin rolling, he wants to know why the reporter came to his home, 19 years later.

He is told about the American production company that developed ‘Million Dollar Arm’, Mandt Bros. Productions, and their interest in turning his story into a feature film. Why, the reporter wonders, do foreign filmmakers and producers see something in him that South Africans have stopped seeing? Why has his story yet to be properly told?

Thugwane likes these questions – so much so, he asks to be prompted for the video portion of the interview, to repeat what was said in jest earlier. He breathes deeply, sits up straight.

Can you repeat your name and who you are, into the camera?
The face tightens, enough so you can see a faint scar between his lip and chin.

 

“My name is Josia Thugwane. I am the greatest story no-one ever told.”

 

4 Aug 1996: Josia Thugwane of South Africa celebrates as he enters the stadium during the men's marathon at the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Thugwane won gold. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell /Allsport
4 Aug 1996: Josia Thugwane of South Africa celebrates as he enters the stadium during the men’s marathon at the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Thugwane won gold. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell /Allsport

THUGWANE GREW UP with nothing in apartheid South Africa. But when he won the marathon at the 1996 Olympic Games, he became the first black South African to win an individual gold medal – and he altered the course of his family’s lives.

“IT’S A CRIME South Africa forgot about him, a f—ing crime!”

Grant the driver grows more furious by the minute. He’s spent almost four hours at the Olympian’s farmhouse, a good hour east of Johannesburg, eavesdropping on every word of the interview. Now, he seethes.

A bald, white Afrikaner in Ah-nold black shades, who keeps his Glock in the drinks-holder next to the steering wheel as he drives, and tells white-guy-to-white guy, racially-loaded jokes until his customer tells him to stop. This big, fidgety white man suddenly feels protective of the little black man with the big finishing kick, who’s been unspooling his life.

“It’s not fair. Josia is a goddamn hero. He can’t just live out here and no-one knows what happened.”

Job Mahlangu, Thugwane’s first mentor – the man who discovered him running in black shoes without rubber soles, 27 years ago – stares vacantly towards the Koornfontein Mines in Mpumalanga, where they first met. “After the Olympics, everybody’s talking with Josia. But now they don’t talk about him anymore.”

Ian Laxton, one of two South African television broadcasters at the track-and-field events in Atlanta 19 years ago, and the country’s distance-running historian, says: “If you went out and asked a thousand people, ‘Who is Josia Thugwane?’, just in the streets, probably two per cent would know who he is; maybe five or 10 per cent at best.”

It makes no sense.

“Here’s this black guy from apartheid South Africa,” Laxton continues. “Discriminated against. Got nothing. No education, nothing. Here he arrives in the deep south in America, the birthplace of Martin Luther King, where America had its own racial history; and here he comes, breaking barriers all over the place. A perfect storm on all sorts of levels was happening there.”

Our October 1996 Runner's World Cover, celebrating Thugwane's victory.
Our October 1996 Runner’s World Cover, celebrating Thugwane’s victory.

Thugwane can’t hear them. He’s still in the kitchen, helping Zodwa.

“I think everybody get story,” he says later to a visiting journalist in his halting English rasp, too proud to acknowledge he has faded into memory. “Even you have your story.”

Today is Freedom Day, 27 April – 21 years to the afternoon of the country’s first all-race elections, when hope and Mandela finally won, beating back oppression, inequality. Symbolic; almost fateful, no?
Thugwane shrugs.

“Sometimes they do the celebration in the town; but as for me and my family, we don’t do anything today,” he says. “Freedom Day is not important everywhere.”

“Did you vote in ‘94?” he is asked.
“Yes, I vote. But that was long ago.”
Almost forever, now.

IN THIS SOUTH AFRICA, Thugwane walks into his living room, near his childhood home in the neighbouring province. Past the framed Josia Thugwane Day proclamation from home:

“The Citizens of Mpumalanga Province, realising the apartheid hurdles you had to overcome – lack of training/facilities, lack of professional coaching, complete non-existence of financial and other support systems – pride themselves for having born a hero.”

A badly-acted South African drama blares through the television. This is better than the news; because Thugwane knows if he turns to that channel, he has to watch – playing on a loop – the deaths of foreigners at the hands of South African nationals.

“To claim these people come to South Africa to take the job, and that’s why you kill them? I don’t understand,” he says, shaking his head.

Like the promise of his one moment in time, like the change it might bring… gone. The broken country he helped heal feels broken again.

Soon after Thugwane was born, his father left his mother for another woman, who didn’t want a son who wasn’t hers. Before Josia was two years old, his mother had left him for a man who didn’t want a son who wasn’t his.

He grew up with his maternal grandmother and his uncle, who sent his own children to school but refused to send Thugwane. He pleaded with his uncle, only to be told that someone would have to tend the cattle while his children were at school.

He dreamed of being a famous soccer player, like the late John ‘Shoes’ Moshoeu of the national team. But Thugwane’s dreams were beaten out of him by his uncle’s belt – sometimes until he bled. “After so many times, you don’t feel nothing,” he recalls.

When the violence, manual labour and lack of formal schooling continued from early childhood into adolescence, Thugwane told his grandmother he could not stay any longer.

He can’t remember running far before he was 14. He had no daily regimen to build his stamina; just the innate desire to escape his uncle’s rule. It carried him about 32km in the middle of the night, on foot, to the town of Kriel. He barely stopped running, thinking the headlights of his uncle’s truck were seconds from illuminating his stride through the dark.

One other thought crept into his head – and it was so powerful, he repeated it in his native Zulu, over and over:

”Uma ufuna ukuba uphumelele, khohlwa konke.” (‘If you want to succeed, forget everything.’)

He found work in Kriel gardening for an older woman, who gave him room and board. But for many of his formative years, Thugwane had no purpose beyond earning enough to survive on his own; and somehow, someday, to marry and have a family.

Bored one afternoon, he sat on a gate on the side of the road as a group of men came running past in military formation. It was the spring of 1988, and Thugwane’s first godsend – a lithe black man, with élan and purpose in his gait – had just flown past in colourful running shoes.

In casual black shoes, a formal white shirt and long grey trousers, 17-year-old Thugwane jumped off that gate and joined the group of fleet men in stride. Job Mahlangu thought the “boy was playing” with his running team – until he sped to the front, staying there for 15km until he tired and lay down in the grass as the men passed, shaking their heads at the kid’s audacity.

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The next day, Thugwane summoned the courage to ask Mahlangu if he could join his team, which was sponsored by the local mining company. But he had no running shoes; and none of the other runners wanted to let him borrow a pair, for fear he would steal them. Finally, after Thugwane’s bare feet blistered badly during several long training runs, Mahlangu promised one of his runners he would pay for his shoes if Josia took off with them.

It was the first of many times Job would vouch for Thugwane – a young man he barely knew, but who he believed in wholly.

When Thugwane kept up with Job’s fastest men – all between 20 and 35 – during an 8-K time trial, the mentor knew he might have a prodigy on his hands. Within weeks, he asked his foreman to give the kid a job.

FOR MOST OF THE 1980S AND 1990S, many of South Africa’s largest mining companies turned out some of the country’s best young athletes. Run by multinational conglomerates with money to burn, they sponsored everything from soccer and track running to boxing and karate.

White Afrikaner male coaches, posted throughout the country at different mines, began running teams by recruiting young black distance runners. They offered them room and board and menial-paying jobs above ground, away from the soot and the coal that could ruin their lungs.

In return, the best runners brought their mines local prestige. They became feeder programmes – much as happens at American colleges, sans tuition for education. Koornfontein Mines Ltd, which harvested coal and energy, had given Mahlangu such a job in 1981. Within two years, he had become Koornfontein’s coach, driver, treasurer, untrained physician and recruiter.

Mahlangu wanted just three things for Thugwane as he helped prepare and train him: a job with the mine, regional fame, and not to burn himself out by competing in too many marathons too young. He thought that if Thugwane was routinely beaten by more experienced men at the 42.2km distance as a teen, “he will stop believing he can win”.

But Thugwane kept pushing Mahlangu to let him run this thing called a marathon.

A month before the annual Sun City marathon in 1989, Mahlangu told Thugwane he was still too young; but he could make the trip with the other entrants from the mine. When they arrived, Thugwane pleaded for an entry bib. Mahlangu finally told him he could run, but to stop if he got tired, that he didn’t need to finish. Thugwane thought this advice odd.

You see… Thugwane somehow had no concept of the race’s distance. He thought it might be a fancy word for a 10-K race; or at worst, the distance of a half marathon, 21.1 kilometres.

“I start running – run, run, run, run,” he remembers. “I feel a little bit tired. I was like, ‘Why is this race not finished now?’”

Imagine running a marathon without knowing how long it is, or when you will finish. Every runner in every race has mental checkpoints along the way, to help understand how long the pain will last. Thugwane had no such knowledge – only his stubborn will to keep going.

After the halfway point, he kept going. And going, finishing in just over two hours and 23 minutes, in fifth place. He won R900. He bought his first pair of new running shoes, Nike Vendettas. R300 went to the store manager, as part-payment for the shoes. The rest went to his extended family of 10 in Bethal.
Within a week, Mahlangu told him that his employers had seen Thugwane’s name in the newspaper, and that they were now ready to give him a job.

Mahlangu then drove him to the government office and walked him through the process of procuring identification – he had none. Soon after, Thugwane was sweeping and mopping floors, cleaning rooms – an 18-year-old janitor at the mine hostel.

Mahlangu told him he would help with his training, but that staying employed was his own responsibility. The one piece of advice Thugwane remembers: “Don’t run away.”

FOR THE FIRST TIME in his life, Thugwane had structure around his needs, nobody else’s. He began running three times a day, as per Mahlangu’s training programme. Five days per week, more than 35km a day. Mahlangu started him with almost 16km at 8am, 8km at noon, and 12km at 5pm.

He made Thugwane slow down and think when he ran too, insisting he use just one of his daily runs as a speed workout.

He also encouraged Thugwane to supplement his pittance of a weekly salary from the mines (R475), by running half marathons and 10-Ks offering prize money at the weekends.

The year before Atlanta, Mahlangu pulled into his driveway late at night, during a thunderstorm. He saw what looked like a crumpled refuse bag in front of the headlights, underneath the carport roof. When the headlights hit the plastic, the bag suddenly moved.

“Josia?”

Cold and wet, Thugwane had huddled himself in the carport. Mahlangu invited him in, made him coffee, and told him he could stay if he explained why he’d dropped by unannounced.

He wanted Mahlangu to drive him to a half marathon offering R500 in prize money, 160km away, just outside the Swaziland border. Oh, and he needed money for the entrance fee.

With barely a quarter-tank of petrol in his car, and with no money to purchase more, Job looked at his wife. For Thugwane’s sake, she nodded to her husband that he should chance it. He never told Thugwane of his predicament. To conserve petrol, he switched off the ignition and put the car in neutral on every hill descent.

Mahlangu ran from the back of the pack, trying to catch a glimpse of Thugwane’s progress. No luck. The course was covered by pines and tree ferns. After finishing well behind the leaders, Mahlangu waited by the car.

“Ah, let’s go,” he said a good half-hour later, when Thugwane finally showed up.
Josia: “Let’s go where? I’m waiting for my money.”
Job: “Did you win?”
Josia: “Don’t ask me, ‘Did I win?’ Say, ‘How much money are you going to get?’”
R500 rand richer – more than his salary – Thugwane embraced Mahlangu.

“We get the petrol, we get the food, we make it home, we are so happy,” Mahlangu recalls.
There was more. On the way home, Thugwane told his mentor how he’d won.

Two runners remained in contention to win after the 12km mark – Thugwane, and a man of equal calibre a few steps behind, copying his every move. When Thugwane drank water, he drank. When he ate a banana at another stop, the other man ate a banana.

After studying his pursuer carefully, Thugwane took two small chocolate energy bars offered at the last stop, with little more than two kilometres left. He pretended to consume one. Then, when he looked back to see the man had gobbled one of the bars, and was having trouble digesting it as he ran – as Thugwane knew he would – Thugwane took off, demoralising his competitor.

Mahlangu realised Thugwane had not only great talent, but also the ruthless cunning of a potential champion.

At 21, Thugwane just missed qualifying for the 1992 Barcelona games, South Africa’s return to the Olympic stage after more than two decades of apartheid-fuelled exile.

As with the length of a marathon, he still didn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of the Olympics. To him, it was Sun City with more prize money. “But in my mind, I understand just one thing: to go there to represent Mandela,” he says.

He won the national marathon championship in 1993 in Cape Town, and the Honolulu Marathon two years later. But the year after, Thugwane still had just the fifth-best time of his countrymen, and was faced with one last chance to avoid being an alternate on the Olympic team: run the national marathon in February 1996 in a time of two hours, nine minutes or better.

For the first 35km, he stayed among the lead pack, worried about making his move too soon. The three qualifiers with better times were in that pack when Thugwane broke away, refusing to give up the lead in the final 7.2km. He won; but had a sinking feeling as he crossed the finish line, and saw his time: more than two hours, 11 minutes.

“I feel I fail for the second time to be in the Olympics and run for Mandela,” he says.

A week later, the race’s sponsors, in concert with the athletic federation, decided the current national champion should be a part of the Olympic team, even if his time wasn’t as fast as the third and final qualifier had run previously.

Mahlangu picked up a local newspaper – and read a story about his friend. “Josia,” he said, “you are going to Atlanta. See, I tell you; your dream lives.”

Unable to read or write in English or his native Zulu, unaware that Mandela had been elected until the morning after the election in 1994, Thugwane wasn’t even sure what the end of apartheid meant.
All he knew was: “The white people have money. The black people are to work [for] the white people. I don’t know whether this is wrong thing.”

But he knew that from 1964 until 1992, South Africa hadn’t participated in the Olympics. He knew Mandela had enabled him to finally run against the world. He knew, after years of deprivation and managing so much pain, he finally deserved happiness.

In 1996, in accordance with Ndebele tradition, he still owed Zodwa’s parents a bridal fee – R1 000, and eight cows. Driving between Kriel and Bethal five months before the Olympics – and just two weeks after he’d won the national marathon – he rolled down the window of his used white Mazda bakkie, and asked three men standing by the side of the road whether they knew where the cattle farmer he was looking for lived.

The three men nodded. Picking up hitchhikers is nothing uncommon in the rural areas of South Africa, especially ones who double as guides.

But Thugwane thought something felt off when two jumped into his truck and the other followed behind in a Nissan Sentra. He accelerated when the Nissan drew closer. The hitchhikers asked him to slow down and pull over.

When he asked the man in the front seat why he wanted him to pull over in the middle of nowhere, the man showed him a silver-plated revolver. Panicked, he floored it, first swerving right and then left. And then the gun went off. He says he felt nothing, but saw blood.

Everywhere.
His blood.

Before the bullet went through the windscreen, it had passed through Thugwane’s face, between his lip and chin – a disfiguring three-centimetre gash. The truck was still moving when he undid his seat belt, grabbed the door handle, and jumped.

His shirt soaked with his own blood, the right side of his back shooting pain, he tried to flag down a car on the road; but once the driver saw his bloodied face, he sped off, frightened. Thugwane finally made his own way to the Bethal police station.

They took a report, took him to the hospital to have his face stitched up, and found his bakkie in Kriel, out of petrol. No-one was ever arrested for the crime.

Thugwane was all but broken; the culmination of so much good in his world, gone in a gunshot. “My dream [of going] to the Olympics is gone now,” he thought.

When the shock of the carjacking had subsided, Thugwane’s real impediment to competing in Atlanta was a bulging disc in his lower right back. His right side throbbed when he first tried to run a 5-K.

But he received unexpected help in his rehab. Like the three other South African marathoners who had come from the mine leagues, he had already built up a reservoir of goodwill with his employer.

Koornfontein covered all his medical costs, including a gruelling, seven-day-a-week physical therapy programme that represented his only hope of getting his body right so he could join his teammates in Albuquerque, for South Africa’s first marathon training camp before an Olympics.

Two months later, he pushed himself, running more than 16km for the first time since before the carjacking. No pain. 24km. No pain. 32km. No pain. He hadn’t dodged a bullet; he’d caught one, leaving a protruding scar that looked like a child’s glop of finger paint. Not even that could stop him.

Thugwane booked a flight to America, to the mountains of New Mexico. By then, his talent had been transferred from the care of Job Mahlangu at the mines to the hands of Jacques Malan, the first white man he truly trusted.

THE SON OF A TOWN COP in KwaZulu-Natal, Jacques Malan learned fluent Zulu as a child, befriending the black children who weren’t allowed to go to school with him. At ease with anyone of any colour, Jacques embellished everything. He even told his four runners – Thugwane, Gert Thys, Lawrence Peu and Xolile Yawa – that if they let him, he could cook the pap they all grew up on as children, just like their tribal families back home.

“No, Jacques, it doesn’t taste the same I must cook the pap,” Thugwane said, cackling, in the three-bedroom apartment on Eubank Avenue in Albuquerque that he was sharing with Malan and the other runners, just two months before the Centennial Games.

Malan and Thugwane had met two years earlier, at a race in which one of the runners Malan managed was competing. Thugwane recalls the personal attention and kindness Malan had shown his competitor; how, beyond their shared success, a white man seemed to be so concerned about a black man’s welfare.

Although he loved to run, Malan was never an athlete. He worked for a bank, and coached and managed part-time, conniving his full-time employers out of as many days off as he could to work with the country’s elite distance runners. He was never a paid South African federation coach; nor did he ever work in any official capacity. But Malan played the game well, securing funding, and sequestering, pampering and feeding his best runners.

Malan was also prescient. He understood keenly that after the release of Mandela from prison in 1990, change would come quickly; so he took the time to forge relationships with elite black athletes, when most white coaches in South Africa had yet to seriously pay them any attention.

Before three weeks had gone by, during the bonding trip to Albuquerque, the four black marathoners realised the same thing: they had never met anyone like Malan, someone who cared for them more than he coached them. True, their success was tied to his validation in the eyes of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee; but it was more than that.

If a runner’s brother in Limpopo province had no food, or an athlete he was coaching and managing had a mother who needed a ride to the hospital in Bethal, Malan solved the problem.

He laundered their clothes, listened to their life stories late into the New Mexico night, played chaperone if they wanted to go to the theatre in town and fall over laughing at The Nutty Professor, even if three of the four could not understand a word.

Jacques talked Sam Ramsamy, the chairman of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee, into allotting almost 200 000 US dollars to fly the marathoners to Albuquerque and fund them for two months before the Games – an unheard-of request for a group that no-one (except Malan, and the runners themselves) expected to bring home a medal.

“I have a few issues,” Malan said to Ramsamy, calling from Albuquerque two weeks into the trip. “The funding you gave us is adequate, but I need your authority on several things. Point one is the pap. The lads want their pap.”

Pap could not be found in Albuquerque. So Ramsamy express-mailed two monstrous bags full, and okayed two long-distance calls home each per week.

Thugwane was the outlier among the four. Because he’d won the national title, with a time slower than the other three runners, he had bumped Peu from competing. Malan thought Thys and Yawa were his best hopes initially, especially after Thugwane had three teeth extracted a week after he arrived in Albuquerque.

But they were all in tremendous shape, running up to 190km a week at 1 500m elevation. Peu had decided if he wasn’t going to run in Atlanta, he would run a half marathon in France on his way home to South Africa. He even had a flight booked through New York, before deciding at the last minute to stay.

TWA Flight 800 to Rome, with a stopover in Paris, crashed into the Atlantic off Long Island 12 minutes after take-off, killing everyone aboard. On learning the news, Peu walked outside the apartment and circled aimlessly for several minutes, before quietly praising God that he hadn’t taken the flight.

Yawa then came down with stress fracture in his left leg – which enabled Peu to run in Atlanta.

Thugwane, meanwhile, had felt on a never-ending endorphin kick since rehabbing his back and (improbably) making it to Albuquerque. When the South Africans would train with other teams who had come to New Mexico for the training-at-altitude benefits, he, Thys, Yawa and Peu would invariably end up running to the front, leaving the Russians, Germans and British behind in the foothills outside the city.

Thugwane felt so good, he was worried. So he called Job Mahlangu, back home at the mine, two weeks before race day in Atlanta. “Now I’ve got a serious problem,” he said. “I am running, but I don’t feel nothing on my legs; even my body I feel nothing.”

Mahlangu told Thugwane that he understood the problem, and could diagnose it; but that he would talk to him in a week. Puzzled, Thugwane asked why Mahlangu couldn’t tell him immediately. But to no avail: “I call you in a week – okay, Josia?”

A week later, Mahlangu called. “You say your body is tired, and you feel nothing on the legs?”
“Ja.”
“You know what, you are not fit,” said Mahlangu.
Thugwane boiled over in a flash of anger. But Mahlangu interrupted. “No, keep quiet. I just want to tell you something. You are not fit. You are super-fit!”
“What do you mean?” Thugwane asked.

“Josia, I want to tell you one thing now: if you want to win this race, you are going to win it.”

Throughout their relationship, Mahlangu had provided for and protected his protégé. From running shoes, to employment, to talking him out of running marathons too young – and now, waiting a week to tell Thugwane what great shape he was in; because Mahlangu believed that had Thugwane known, he would have become overconfident, dialled back his training, and lost his mental edge.

But now he knew Thugwane was ready for Atlanta – even if the rest of the world had never heard of him.

Atlanta 1996 Opening Ceremony (Photo by Bongarts/Getty Images)
Atlanta 1996 Opening Ceremony (Photo by Bongarts/Getty Images)

THE OPENING CEREMONY in Atlanta enraptured Thugwane. He saw Muhammad Ali, trembling with Parkinson’s, courageously lighting the torch. Then he returned to Albuquerque with his teammates, to train for 10 more days.

On 4 August 1996, Josia Thugwane – a waif of a janitor in a coal-mine hostel, just 1.58m and 45kg in his nylon green-and-gold tank top, and a matching loincloth for running shorts – still knew nothing of the marathon’s history, nor of the importance of the Games, when he toed the starting line in downtown Atlanta.

Unburdened by knowledge, so much of an underdog in a wide-open race that not one journalist managed to ask him before the race what a win would mean, Thugwane’s mind was free and clear of the possibilities that winning held:

A black man, running for Mandela – running the race of the ancients in the New South, where change came glacially slowly.

A black man, running away from his homeland’s sad racial past – running towards a reformed South Africa, where change came even more painfully slowly.

If he won, not since Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin in 1936, or since aboriginal 400-metre runner Cathy Freeman won gold in Sydney in 2000 (releasing a small measure of Australia’s white guilt over the tragedy of the Stolen Generations) would a more powerful racial message have been sent on an Olympic track.

South Africa’s first healing, unifying moment on the sporting stage had come the year before, when the Springboks – stunningly – won the Rugby World Cup. Mandela partnered with the team’s white captain, Francois Pienaar, to unite the country behind the most popular sport of white South Africans. Months later, in January 1996, South Africa won the African Cup of Nations for the first time, inspiring whites to unite behind the mostly black national soccer team.

But no black South African had ever won an individual gold medal on the Olympic stage; government money had scarcely been used to develop anyone but South Africa’s white athletes. From 1962 to 1971, and then in 1977, South Africa actually held segregated national titles for the men’s and women’s marathons. Between 1971 and 1976, South Africa held no marathon championships for its black runners.

Never had a single black man faced the possibility of having millions of white South Africans on the brink of euphoria if he could medal.

Thugwane was oblivious to all the socio-political implications; in fact, his greatest asset might have been his practical, financial motivation. The government would award R150 000 to any South African who won gold at the Olympics. “If I can win this race,” he thought, “I can change my life.”
Ignorance wasn’t merely bliss; it had the potential to be beautiful.

To avoid the unrelenting heat of another sticky summer in the south, the race was moved from the traditional afternoon starting time, before the closing ceremonies, to 7:05 in the morning. By the time it would end, the runners would still have had to deal with 26-degree temperatures and 80 per cent humidity.

A continent away, that Sunday, Thugwane’s coach’s girlfriend drank with friends at a sports bar in Jeffreys Bay – young white people in a beach town, slogging Castle Lagers by the pint.

Annalize Botha thought the atmosphere inside that sports bar was magical. A striking, long-limbed, sandy-blonde bank clerk living in Humansdorp in the Eastern Cape, she had recently begun dating a running nut with a sparse moustache who worked for the same bank she did – but at the headquarters in Johannesburg, more than 800km away. The guy said he loved the sound of her voice over the phone, and invited himself down.

Jacques Malan told her straight out that he coached distance runners, and that his sole goal in life involved being taken seriously by the South African Sports Confederation. For that to happen, one of his pupils needed not just to get to Atlanta, but to medal. So if they were going to date, it was running first and her second.

In his home near the Koornfontein Mines, Job Mahlangu turned on the television. Zodwa watched at her brother’s house in Bethal.

The race began just after 1pm South African time. Penny Heyns had already won two gold medals in the breaststroke (South Africa’s first golds since the 1952 Helsinki Games); one more medal of any kind would give a nation that had been exiled from seven of the last eight Olympics its greatest haul in 44 years.

4 Aug 1996: Josia Thugwane of South Africa (no 2122) leads the pack during the men's marathon at the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Thugwane won gold . Mandatory Credit: Gary M Prior/Allsport
4 Aug 1996: Josia Thugwane of South Africa (no 2122) leads the pack during the men’s marathon at the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Thugwane won gold . Mandatory Credit: Gary M Prior/Allsport

The marathon’s 124 runners circled the track three-and-a-half times, before leaving the stadium and running through and around Atlanta for the next three hours. After they moved through the city, they would run past Buckhead’s malls; up to Oglethorpe; turn around, and run back down through downtown; past Centennial Olympic Park, where a bomb had shaken the Games a week earlier; across the Capital Avenue bridge, and into the stadium.

A pack of 50 broke away at 16km; and at the halfway point of 21km, more than 25 of the world’s greatest distance runners still envisioned gold.

Thugwane stayed in the middle of that lead pack, content to let others dictate the pace, and see what he had left as the contenders dwindled.

Almost unknown internationally, and only South Africa’s fifth alternate five months before, Thugwane did not lack long-distance running experience; he had run 18 marathons before Atlanta. But he had won only one outside of South Africa. However: although Honolulu didn’t have the prestige of New York or Boston, its heat and humidity almost mirrored Atlanta in August. He also wasn’t stick thin, like many of his peers. His squat, muscled frame absorbed the humidity better.

The first historic moment happened at 24km, when Thys, Peu and Thugwane ran to the front for one of the most unscripted, empowering images of any Olympic Games. Even Tom Hammond, the NBC announcer commentating the event, was caught by surprise.

Three black men – unable to vote in their own country until two years before, unable to compete internationally until five years previously – together in the lead, on the last day of the Games.
Thugwane, Peu and Thys were eventually joined by Lee Bong-ju of South Korea, before the pack caught them. Peu and Thys eventually dropped back.

By about 27km, it was Thugwane against the seasoned Lee, who had beaten him in the only race in which they had competed; and the Kenyan Erick Wainaina, a relative novice, running in just his fifth marathon.
At 30km, Thugwane broke away, but Lee maintained striking distance. Wainaina issued the first real challenge 1.6km later, surging past Thugwane, making him turn his head in midstride. Lee then rejoined them, and ran to the front with less than 5km left as they passed downtown Atlanta for the last time.
Although only a few thousand had come to the stadium for the 9.30am finish, the crowd grew thicker and louder the closer they got to the track.

In South Africa, cars on the freeway began pulling off at filling stations, crowding televisions around cashiers, to see whether Thugwane could win.

As they moved past the 40km mark, Lee appeared to be strongest – leading Thugwane and Wainaina by mere metres but sailing along assertively, his chest held high, his eyes straight ahead.

And then it happened; as if he were running that half marathon for cash across the Swaziland border. At the last water station, within the last two kilometres, Thugwane’s arms and legs pushed past Lee. He looked back as he entered the stadium, to see how much distance he had created between himself and the other two.

In his broadcasting booth inside the stadium, Ian Laxton’s insides were churning faster than Thugwane’s legs. “We knew he would medal by then, but we had no idea what colour. These guys were just behind him. There were three of them on the stadium track.”

Lee overtook Wainaina in the tunnel, charging fast behind Thugwane with just a little more than a lap around the track to go. None of them was more than 20 metres ahead or behind the others while in the stadium. Lee kept pressing, creeping up on Thugwane, trying desperately to seize the lead again, coming within 10 metres.

But Thugwane suddenly found something more, kicking as if he were running the 400 rather than closing in on his 42nd kilometre. His legs looked longer than those belonging to a man only 1.5m tall, as if the rest of his body belonged to his femurs and his feet. He had come too far, managed too much pain; he wouldn’t let himself be beaten.

Looking back once more as he rounded the backstretch with less than 200 metres left, realising Lee couldn’t catch him, he began to exult, windmilling his arms; and he crossed the finish line in two hours, 12 minutes, and 36 seconds, three seconds ahead of the South Korean, eight seconds in front of the Kenyan – the closest finish in Olympic-marathon history.

An illiterate man who had overcome abject poverty and a cruel birthright, a janitor in a mine hostel who had been shot in the face just five months before, had won the last gold medal of the Centennial Games – and the first gold medal to belong to a black man from South Africa.

Annalize Botha hugged white and black strangers in the streets of a beach town. “The whole country was so proud. Josia was like the lost child who’s come home.”

Zodwa Thugwane heard the joyous shouts for her husband’s victory outside her younger brother’s house in Mpumalanga, where dozens watched on a television powered by a generator. She thrust her arms skyward and yelled, “Kuyamangalisa!” – Zulu for ‘It’s a miracle.’

Photo by Henri Szwarc/Bongarts/Getty Images
Photo by Henri Szwarc/Bongarts/Getty Images

They poured out of the black townships, out of the gated white neighbourhoods, out of malls and restaurants, off the freeways into filling stations. Hell, at Koornfontein Mines, Shift B stopped production – all celebrating the glory of one man, one flag.

“This is for my country,” Thugwane said after he won. “This is for my president. I’m grateful I have this opportunity. It is an indication to others that if we work hard, all of us have equal opportunity – not like in the past.”

Laxton began filling in the panicked international journalists, who had just two pressing questions: “Do you pronounce the ‘TH’ in his last name?” And the most common one: “Who is he?”

Later describing Thugwane’s lightness of being in the moment, Laxton said, “His mind had taken over his body and it had blocked out the pain, and all he was aware of in the entire universe was those guys around him, and the clock, and those kilometre boards. That was it. I don’t think that he was gritting his teeth, and I don’t think he was feeling.”

Job Mahlangu danced inside his home with his last-born, his five-year-old son. The phone rang an hour later; he picked it up, and the man on the other end said, “Did you see me?”

“Josia! Oh my God!”

And there was Jacques Malan, the coach-manager who’d promised a medal to South African officials, mostly because he knew it was his one shot at being taken seriously, and not having to work at the bank for the rest of his life. He wept openly, heaving sobs from underneath the stadium. When he finally reached Thugwane, he nearly fell into his arms.

Thugwane looked at Malan curiously for a moment, as if he didn’t know this crazy man; and finally rubbed Malan’s scalp, smiling.

“Jacques, why you are crying? I won.”

JOSIA THUGWANE CAME home to two weeks of celebrations, parades and honorary dinners. Ndebele, Xhosa, Zulu and other tribal dancers encircled him at different gatherings, chanting, singing, making up poems of praise for his triumph.

Coca-Cola signed him to a six-figure endorsement contract minutes after his victory, about $200 000 over four years – enough to allow a poor child from a black township to buy enclosed homes with modern roofing for himself and his immediate family.

Penny Heyns and the other South African medallists weren’t sure how they would be received when they returned home. “There was this expectation when we got back that white people would be happy for me, and black people would be happy for Josia,” Heyns says now. “The big surprise for both of us was that the celebration was so united. It was quite overwhelming, actually.”

Mandela had them over for lunch at the presidential palace within weeks, and when the server entered the room with the food, Heyns remembers, Mandela took over. “He served us our meals on our plates – to this day, I can’t tell you how humbling, how incredible that was.”

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - AUGUST 8: (SOUTH AFRICA OUT) Nelson Mandela walks with Olympic stars Josia Thugwane and Penny Heyns (R) on August 8, 1996 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Julani van der Westhizen/Sunday Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA: Nelson Mandela walks with Olympic stars Josia Thugwane and Penny Heyns on August 8, 1996 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Julani van der Westhizen/Sunday Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Thugwane intimated to Mandela that he had never gone to school; and Mandela saw to it that the first and only individual black gold-medallist in his nation’s history was given an English tutor thereafter, at no cost. Before they left he sidled up to Thugwane, smiling widely as only Madiba could.
“You say you’re not educated – but your feet are.”

Within weeks of his victory, Thugwane had problems at home – a famous, relatively wealthy person can go unnoticed in the townships for only so long. He began to be pulled like a wishbone by duelling agents and promoters. When he left the country to compete, he feared his family would be robbed while he was away. He felt pressure to buy houses for his extended family.

Two years later, Jacques Malan – the only person Thugwane trusted to direct his career – was diagnosed with colon cancer. He was only 43. It spread quickly to his liver, and he was given three months to live. He made it two years, marrying Annalize Botha three months before he died in June 2000. “I think Jacques was scared I would leave him,” she says. “But I wanted to marry him. Even at the end.”

“Jacques loved Josia – he looked on him as his son,” recalls Annalize. When she joined Malan in Johannesburg, and Thugwane and Zodwa followed her move, the couples became best friends. Malan’s devotion to Thugwane came at everyone’s expense. Once, Annalize wondered where her husband was, and found him at Thugwane’s house. “He’s lifting the rails for the curtains and installing them,” Zodwa told her. When she asked where Malan had got a power drill to do the job, she was told he’d gone and bought one for Thugwane.

“I had asked him to put pictures up and do many things for our house, and he always said he needed a drill,” Annalize says now, half-lamenting. “But if Josia asked, without even asking twice, he would be there.”

In their final bedside visit, while Thugwane was training for the Sydney Olympics, Malan asked whether he could snip a lock of Thugwane’s short-dreadlocked hair. Annalize found scissors, Thugwane knelt down, and Malan cut a thick lock. “I will be with you that day when you run,” he told Josia.

That September, the night before Thugwane ran, Annalize took the plastic bag and tucked it under the pillow where her late husband had slept, just as he’d wanted. It bordered between maudlin and morbid, she knew; but these were the last requests of a dying man. Josia finished 20th in Sydney.
“Obviously it didn’t help much,” Annalize Malan says now, pursing her lips.

“Jacques was our family,” Peu says. “We were so used to him doing things for us that we didn’t know how to do them on our own. Since he died, nobody’s replaced Jacques Malan, as far as I’m concerned. No-one could look after the athletes like Jacques Malan.”

Thugwane says he never cried outwardly at the funeral, but “I cry inside.”

“I never even grow up (with) my father. For me, Malan is my father. Everything you share, you share like the son and the father. The son is still alive.”

He continued training – and occasionally, winning – remaining an internationally sponsored elite marathoner for the next four years. But he never again summoned the human majesty that he had on that day in Atlanta.

Neither did any of his countrymen. The mine leagues became a victim of the rand’s 2001 devaluation, closing up shop for good in 2004. The country’s black elite runners suddenly had no infrastructure of dedicated coaches, employment and preferential job placement to protect their health. The athletic federation stopped searching for the next Thugwane, discarding the promise of another long-distance champion in favour of sprinters and other athletes. “In a way, Josia Thugwane was the last great runner from this country,” Laxton laments.

“He was never particularly iconic as a person,” Laxton adds. “What he did was very memorable, but he was not (one of) those larger-than-life characters who get themselves into the limelight and remain there because of the force of their character. He’s a quiet guy. There were a number of people around him who tried to make him this iconic figure, and kind of tutor him and help him and push him… but it was never him. He was this quiet little, small, kind of introverted bloke, you know?”

Thugwane’s last marathon victory came in Cape Town in 2006. When the Liberty Nike Athletic Club of Central Gauteng broke up in 2008, he lost more sponsorship and elite partners to train with.
He ran his last competitive race in 2010, dropping out barely a third of the way through.
His current manager, Dries Lessing, Malan’s onetime assistant, said he knew it was over when a local bank that had Thugwane on retainer refused to pay him anymore. “He’s not winning races,” Lessing was told, “so what good is he to us?”

His modest houses are paid for, just as the funerals of family he hardly knew have been paid for. He and Zodwa are solidly middle-class, with three children between the ages of 17 and 20. Along with a slight paunch, Thugwane has acquired a measure of sophistication; he’s unafraid to speak his mind in English.
The big decision now is whether to lease out his farming land. Thugwane tried harvesting a crop a few years back; but while burning his own wheat, he ended up torching his neighbour’s fruit orchard, which set him back about R450 000.

A reporter asks him whether he feels his life has been meaningful, whether he thinks he inspired the kids in that picture on his wall.

Photo by Henri Szwarc/Bongarts/Getty Images
Photo by Henri Szwarc/Bongarts/Getty Images

He says he made a difference – then. “But my dream is to help the young and talented athletes in South Africa [now]. I fail in this goal because I don’t have the money from the government or sponsors to help them.”

He blames his English more than the country that forgot about him. “Maybe this is the problem. Maybe I’m not good talker.”

Nineteen years ago, things came together in just such a way – Thugwane’s indomitable will, the cultural need for him – that a certain zeitgeist defined South Africa.

Now he tends his cattle again, his tracksuit goes back to the closet.

No matter how potent that moment was – and it doesn’t get more potent than race, apartheid, Mandela and the Olympics – time passes. Eventually, life becomes… do you rent the land you own to somebody else who knows how to farm it? How much will it cost to have someone cut my grass? And what’s Zodwa cooking for dinner?

Nineteen years ago, in the New South, Josia Thugwane represented something larger, deeper. Now he’s living in virtual anonymity, the lion in winter; waiting for his phone to ring, for someone to remember what he said into the camera on Freedom Day: “My name is Josia Thugwane. I am the greatest story no-one ever told.”

Until then, he’s going out to look for his 10 cows, see how far they’ve strayed before he needs to feed them, before sundown on the savannah.

Mike Wise is a senior writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated. He’s covered seven Olympics.

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