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Josiah Thugwane

Josiah Thugwane - Forever on the Run

Story by: John Bryant

The stick-thin, ebony-black runner lilting through the bush with ridiculous economy and speed knows exactly what he wants and where he is going. What he wants is a world record and an education. Where he is going is London, to win the marathon.

This is Josiah Thugwane (pronounced tug-wan-ee), the Olympic marathon champion and South Africa's first black Olympic gold medal-winner. When you pad breathlessly beside him through the South African bush he may seem like something out of the past, running with untutored fluency, but this is where the past meets the future.

He may have little English and no education, but Thugwane is a thoroughly professional athlete, consumed with split-times and sponsorship and what size bonus he might collect from Nike and Coca-Cola if he breaks the world record.

He drove us to his training camp himself. He drives like he runs, fast. Propped up on cushions like a jockey (he is only 5ft 2in), he peers over the wheel of his new and powerful four-by-four, baseball cap on his head, mobile phone at his side.

"I have a big new house," he says. "I have the Olympic medal. I've got money in the bank. I've got this car. What I haven't got is education. That's next. I'm going to get a teacher. I'm going to learn to speak and write good English."

Thugwane sets the pace through
the bush flanked by Bryant, right,
and Peu.

We are used to champion runners tumbling out of Africa, racing in packs and trouncing world records, but even by African standards Thugwane's is an unusual rags-to-riches saga. When he went to the Olympics, he was still employed cleaning out kitchens and toilets in a South African mine. He could not read, write or sign his own name. He spoke his tribal language of Ndebele, with his tongue clicking wildly in the back of his mouth.

He went into road running because there was prize-money. "When I was a boy I just played football," he says. "I was a striker. Fast, but too small. So I tried running." His passion is still football. At the training camp, where there is little time for anything other than running, eating and sleeping, he watches football whenever he can on TV, his battered feet propped as high as he can get them.

Outside giraffe, zebra and wildebeest roam and hunters from Europe come to shoot big game, but, ironically, Thugwane finds more safety in the seclusion of this game park than ever he can in the jungle of Johannesburg. There he has just paid cash for a fortified palace of a place in a traditionally white, middle-class area, all swimming-pooled and burglar-alarmed with high fences and threats of armed response to intruders. Thugwane says that this is necessary because "people won't leave me alone. They come all the time. They bang on the door. They climb over the fence. They want money. They won't let me sleep. They won't let me run. They scare my wife."

He is not kidding. His very appearance at the Olympics was almost ended by a gunman. When he was selected for Atlanta, Thugwane bought a bakkie (a small van, a Mazda) to celebrate. A fortnight later his vehicle was hijacked by hitch-hikers. One pulled a gun and he now bears the scar of a bullet that ripped an inch-long furrow from left to right across his chin. He was left with his bullet wound, an injured back from leaping clear and a fear for his safety that haunts him still. When he returned from Atlanta he found he was a target for begging neighbours and gangs of criminals eyeing his newly-won wealth. He has been subjected since to demands and death threats.


To escape he keeps moving house. And to train he heads for the bush. His latest move came after his wife was greeted at the gate of their home by the severed head of a monkey impaled on the garden railings. He prepares for his bid to win the Flora London Marathon on April 26 with a regime of total running at the Gannahoek Game Park, where he shares a lodge with a couple of other world-class runners. One of them, Laurence Peu, ran with him in the Atlanta Olympics and then finished seventh in the London Marathon last year in 2hr 09min 10sec.

Pausing to recover breath
They run twice a day, six days a week, sometimes as far as 35 kilometres. The runners get out for their first session at 6am to give them time to recover for another session in the late afternoon. They run on flat, dirt roads, the surface fast but kind to the legs. They run at altitude. They run in the heat of a South African summer. And they run very fast. Thugwane covered 35km in 2hr 03min for a first run of the day.

His shrewd manager and coach, Jacques Malan, used a similar formula of running and rest in the seclusion of a high-altitude training camp before the Olympic marathon in Atlanta. He knows it works and predicted with quiet confidence that one of his squad would take a medal that day. The runners will stay at this camp until six days before the London Marathon, with no distractions, no sex, no shopping. The monastic preparation and their concern with the size of the prize-purses on offer in the marathons of the world remind you of prizefighters slugging their way out of the ghetto.

They don't like being shut away from their wives and families, but this is their job. Thugwane is determined to do it properly and knows what has to be done. I ask him what the world record is for the marathon. "It's 2hr 06min 50sec," he replies. Then adds with a grin: "But only until April 26."

Cool Running Australia 21.03.98.

This article first appeared in The London Times, 12.03.98.

Photos: Hendry Maritz.

This page last updated: Saturday 20 March 2010

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