“Uma ufuna ukuba uphumelele, hkohlwa konke” (in native Zulu)
(“If you want to succeed, forget everything”)
As we mentioned in our previous post about Fatuma Roba´s victory in the women´s marathon, Atlanta was selected to host the Olympics of the centennial, 100 years after the inaugural 1896 Olympics in Athens.
In men athletics Michael Johnson won gold in the 200 and 400 metres, setting a new world record of 19.32s in the 200 metres. In long jump Carl Lewis would win an astonishing fourth consecutive gold medal in the event at the age of 35.
The men´s marathon was scheduled before the Closing Ceremony, as it had been on other occasions, at 18.45. Because of the hot, humid and sunny conditions it was rescheduled for early morning, at 7.05, as it had been with the women on the previous week, with victory for Fatuma Roba.
There was a total of 124 athletes ready to take part in the marathon. Seventeen nations had sent a full team of 3 members, among them the powerful Spain, with Martín Fiz, Diego García and Alberto Juzdado, who had dominated the European Championships of 1994. Kenya chose the Boston Marathon as his Olympic trial, taking 7 of the first 8 positions. Ezekiel Bitok and Lameck Aguta joined Erick Wainaina, who had won the 1995 IAAF World Marathon Cup, in the Kenyan national team.
It would be too long to mention all the good runners there, but we could highlight Luiz Antonio Santos, from Brasil, who had won the prestigious Fukuoka Marathon with a national record of 2.09.30; Dionicio Cerón, from Mexico, who had won his third consecutive London Marathon with 2.10.00 in April; or world-record holder Belayneh Dinsamo, from Ethiopia, who had won in Rotterdam for the fourth time with 2.10.30.
Josia Thugwane was born in Bethal, South Africa, 120 miles east of Johannesburg. From the Ndebele tribe he lived in poverty during his childhood, as many black South African during the worst years of the apartheid regime. He started running looking for a living thanks to the monetary prizes in some races. Thanks to his running skills he got a job in a mining company, as there were competitions between companies. He debuted in the marathon in 1991 finishing in 2.13.48. He continued running marathons, and although his races differ depending on the sources, he wasn´t very successful until his victories in the 1995 Honolulu Marathon and the Cape Town Marathon of 1996 (2.11.46). This latest victory ensured him the National Championship and a spot in the South African marathon team.
But before the Olympics, tragedy almost finished Thugwane´s dream of attending the Olympics. He was hijacked, and while trying to escape one bullet grazed his chin. Luckily, he recovered quickly, and concentrated with the national team in altitude (1500 metres) in Alburquerque, in the USA, to prepare before the Olympics.
Once the marathon in Atlanta started nobody wanted the take the early lead. Kilometres went by and many athletes were still together: the 10k was crossed in 31.50 and the half marathon in 1.07.36.
Crossing the kilometre 30 (1.35.24) Thugwane decided to increase his pace. Only Wainaina from Kenya stayed with him. They crossed the 35k in 1.50.35, 3s ahead of Lee Bong-ju from South Korea, who was 1s ahead of Fiz and Mexican German Silva.
During the next 5k Thugwane, Wainaina and Lee run together, each one trying to break the others. Entering the stadium Thugwane was only 20m ahead of Lee, who was being pursued very closely by Wainaina.
Finally, Thughwane claimed the victory with 2.12.36, and the shortest difference in Olympic marathon history with the silver medallist, only 3s. Lee finished second in 2.12.39, with Wainaina getting the bronze with 2.12.44.
For his part Martín Fiz, who was reigning European and World champion, finished fourth, with 2.13.20, and the best Olympic result for a Spanish marathoner ever. Worth to mention that tThe Mexican team, composed of Cerón, Silva and Paredes, finished in first position.
Thugwane´s Olympic gold medal was the first for a black South-African. He was awarded with 30 thousand dollars and publicity endorsements, while getting close with Nelson Mandela, president of South Africa at the time. Nevertheless, in an empowered country, money didn´t come without risks. His family needed protection when he was away competing.
He got his best results in 1997, when he finished third in the London Marathon, improving his PB to 2.08.06, and won Fukuoka, with a new PB of 2.07.28. After 1997 he didn´t manage to shine at the same level again. He competed unsuccessfully in Sydney 2000, where he finished 20th, and shortly afterwards a national crisis removed most of South Africa´s athletics funding.
He was a quiet guy, and as he arrived at the international scene, he also disappeared quietly from it. The man whom Mandela called “our golden boy” went back to anonymity: “the greatest story no one ever told”. A runner that would have been a hero in other countries, is almost unknown even in his own South Africa.
“The Olympic Marathon”, DE Martin & RWH Gynn. Human Kinetics, 2000.