Josia Thugwane’s golden marathon

It has been 24 years since the first black South African won gold at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. This is the story of how a cattle herder became a world champion.

This is a chapter from Ian Hawkey and Luke Alfred’s Vuvuzela Dawn: 25 Sporting Stories that Shaped a New Nation (Pan Macmillan, 2019). 

There is something almost biblical about Josia Thugwane’s early life. As a herd boy for his uncle on a farm in Bethal, on the ample green lands of Mpumalanga, east of Johannesburg, his hours were long and lonely. When he was just a boy, his father vanished, leaving Thugwane’s mother with the responsibility of raising her children alone. At first, she dutifully obliged, but being a single mother finally overcame her. She, too, absconded, leaving the four-year-old Thugwane in the care of his maternal grandmother and his uncle. As a herd boy, he earned R10 a month, less than 30 cents a day, supplemented by a monthly ration of a 50kg bag of mealie meal. Although his uncle’s children went to school, Thugwane was prevented from doing so. His uncle insisted he stay in the fields and mind the cattle, so he never learned to read or write. To all intents and purposes, he was without parents and – like so many of his countrymen in similar circumstances for whom there were few alternatives – condemned to a life of rural toil. For years his horizons were as low as the land in which he grew up.

Finally, when he was 16 or 17 – he doesn’t remember – he plucked up the courage to leave. Having confided in his gogo, he slipped away in the middle of the night. As luck would have it, a woman in nearby Kriel, roughly 30km from Bethal, employed him to tend her garden where he could make use of at least some of the skills picked up while working his uncle’s land. “She helped me a lot, that woman,” says Thugwane. “She gave me a sponge; she gave me a blanket. There was work also with the neighbour. I was earning R2.50 a day. I saw Job [Mahlangu] and his runners. That is why I ran away to work in the garden – because there it was easy to train.”

Job Mahlangu, a charismatic local athlete older than Thugwane, was a seminal early influence, as significant as mentor Jacques Malan was to become later. Mahlangu worked as a driver at the Koornfontein coal mine near Kriel but is largely remembered as being everything from chairman to chief bottle-washer for the Koornfontein Athletics Club. One day, with his gardening duties complete, Thugwane took a perch on a fence post and waited for Mahlangu’s training group of athletes to pass. As they did, he asked if he could join them. Although Josia ran in a pair of black school shoes, Mahlangu noted with approval that the youngster hared to the front of the group. He clearly had spunk. Mahlangu bought him his first pair of trainers and encouraged him to persist. He discovered that all Thugwane wanted to do was run in a marathon – without having any conception of its distance, he was obsessed with the event – so Mahlangu counselled caution. Ration your energies, he urged, train with care, you are still young. Don’t run for money too often, you’ll burn out. You have time – time enough to become a champion.

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It was Mahlangu who realised that there was no future for Thugwane tending gardens. He was too vulnerable living by himself, too exposed, the rewards too meagre. Mahlangu recognised that the young athlete needed support, preferably a kind of sinecure or form of sheltered employment that allowed Thugwane ample freedom to train. Before Thugwane could be employed by the Koornfontein coal mine, however, he needed an identity document, known archaically as a “Book of Life” in South Africa. Without it he was unemployable.

At the same time, in 1989, Mahlangu was taking his crew of athletes to a marathon at Sun City and Thugwane begged to tag along. Having arrived, Thugwane implored Mahlangu again, this time to enter him in the race. Mahlangu was more bemused than exasperated: although he talked about it constantly, Josia had no conception of what a marathon entailed, of what it required. He hadn’t so much as seen the course; he had never run 42.2km before, let alone with some of the country’s most experienced marathon athletes. What could possibly be achieved but a breaking of Thugwane’s spirit? On the other hand, a thin flame flickered in Thugwane’s eyes. He was hungry and fearless, an aggressive runner who liked to dash to the front. Had he not beaten some of Mahlangu’s most talented older athletes on the group’s training runs around Kriel? What was there to lose?

Thugwane ran that day in a bubble of sublime ignorance, never giving up and staying the course. He finished fifth, which earned him R900 and, according to an excellent article by Mike Wise published in Runner’s World in 2016, a R300 down payment on a pair of Nike Vendettas. The Sun City Marathon was covered in the nation’s newspapers, which published both a race report and the result. With Thugwane’s name in the paper, Mahlangu had some leverage with mine management. Here was proof positive that the young man had promise.

Thugwane didn’t, however, have a Book of Life, and getting one wasn’t going to be easy. Although he had been abandoned by both parents, he needed their identity documents to prove that he was their son. How to proceed? He and Mahlangu came up with an ingenious plan: they would find another Thugwane and borrow his papers, Josia pretending to be his child and hoping that the ruse wouldn’t be exposed by the Home Affairs official. “I had to find somebody with that surname – it was a problem,” says Thugwane. “But it was okay. We found that somebody.”

Part of Thugwane’s application for an identity document involved a secondary dispute about his date of birth. The official record suggests that he was born in 1971, but he insists that he turned 50 on 15 April 2018, meaning that he was born in 1968. There was further uncertainty about the spelling of his name, a matter for teasing and gentle ribbing by several of his later entourage, including coach Bobby McGee and agent Tony Longhurst. They pointed out that Josia could be spelled phonetically – Josaya – but the man himself begs to differ. He insists on Josia without the “h”, just as he insists on the “h” in Thugwane. “In my ID, there is no ‘y’,” he says adamantly.

Mahlangu found Thugwane a menial job as a cleaner and janitor on the Koornfontein coal mine. This allowed him to live in the mine compound and train twice daily with Mahlangu’s group of athletes. The Koornfontein group could only improve: South African long-distance and marathon running in the early 1990s was full of events, well sponsored and highly competitive, and Mahlangu looked forward to a period of calm and growth. He had high hopes for this young Ndebele road warrior. “At first there were people to confuse me on the mine and say, ‘Do this’ and ‘Come to work at this time’, but I told Job that I would leave the mine and go back to working in the garden if they kept up with this nonsense. After a little bit there was nobody to confuse me – so then I could get more of a chance to train and run for money.”

Thugwane’s early years had hardened him, made him wary and vigilant. In truth, he had a stubborn streak. Some thought him intractable. He didn’t take orders easily. Neither did he slot easily into the training group. At the same time, he was fiercely loyal to Mahlangu, capable of repaying Mahlangu’s trust many times over. But life was still a grind. Money – and the temptation to run solely for the financial reward – remained an issue, yet Thugwane bedded down, trying to catch up on his lost years when he tended cattle on the Bethal farm.

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At the same time, South Africa was changing, trembling on the cusp of a new dispensation, sometimes with violent results. On the mine, Thugwane could ride out the winds of change, watch them buffet the rest of the country while he remained untouched. For the first time in his life, he was sheltered and, in the company’s paternal embrace, he grew. In 1991, he sought out his father, Doctor Thugwane, who had returned to the farm in Bethal. Two years later, in late April or early May – he isn’t exactly sure – he married Zodwa. Zandi was born later that year, and Thandi in 1996, when Thugwane was in pre-Olympic training camp in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Thugwane had always taken himself seriously, but others now began to view him as a threat. The long-distance running scene was competitive, not only in South Africa but also across southern Africa as a whole, with athletes from Namibia, Lesotho and Zimbabwe frequently adding their names to local races. Many mines provided support to runners and, with regular television coverage, sponsors with brands such as Ohlsson’s, Kellerprinz, Weet-Bix and Citizen Watches were only too happy to associate themselves with events. Mark Plaatjies was still running as a South African (he won the World Marathon Champs in Stuttgart in 1993 as an American), with Namibia’s Luketz Swartbooi (who followed Plaatjies into second place in Stuttgart) a regular feature of the local scene.

Thugwane began to suss out who was who. He grew wiser and faster. In the SA Marathon Championships in Cape Town ahead of the Olympics in 1992, he finished fourth, hoping that the result would qualify him for Barcelona as a travelling reserve. David Tsebe, who finished seventh, was picked instead. “So I asked why, and they told me, ‘Not much experience.’ So, okay, I went away to work on getting some more experience.”

Under Mahlangu’s watchful eye, Thugwane widened his exposure, but it wasn’t easy. His gains were incremental – sometimes painful – and often he struggled. The Honolulu Marathon at the end of 1993 was a case in point. “I finished 40-something if I remember,” he says. “It was very hot, so the conditions for running were very difficult – that’s why I failed to do good. Also in 1993 it was the race for Lee Bong-ju [the South Korean Thugwane would later meet in the 1996 Olympic marathon]. He’s a short guy but he’s a very strong guy. He won that time in Hawaii.” While running the New York City Marathon in 1995 Thugwane bailed just after halfway, cold and dehydrated. He ended up on a drip in a tent watching others finish.

14 Aug 1996: Josia Thugwane celebrates with Bong-Ju Lee of South Korea after the men’s marathon at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Thugwane won gold with Lee taking silver. (Photograph by Mike Powell/ Allsport)
14 Aug 1996: Josia Thugwane celebrates with Bong-Ju Lee of South Korea after the men’s marathon at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Thugwane won gold with Lee taking silver. (Photograph by Mike Powell/ Allsport)

All of these setbacks were chalked up to experience. He missed the Honolulu Marathon in 1994 but was back the following year. The pre-dawn start was designed to avoid the rising tropical heat, and video footage of the event shows the pace-setters ghosting past trees yoked with fairy lights and Christmas decorations. The Kenyan, Benson Masya, gunning for his fourth victory in five years, was an early favourite, followed closely by compatriot Jimmy Muindi. The South African Johannes Mabitle, the stalking horse, went out hard, leading the front pack by a narrow margin for the first 65 minutes.

By halfway, with the sun rising over the mountains and a breeze already blowing in from the Pacific, Mabitle faded away. Thugwane took the lead from a chasing pack that included not only the two highly ranked Kenyans but also athletes from South Korea, Lesotho and Tanzania. With three-quarters of the race completed, only Masya (in the Number 1 bib) and Thugwane remained. Thugwane looked momentarily discomforted as the two climbed a slight incline close to the end, but managed to compose himself sufficiently for an assault on the finish.

Within sight of the line, Thugwane, the janitor on a South African coal mine, battled with Masya, a former Kenyan postman. With approximately 200m to go, and the two neck and neck, Thugwane made his move, breaking the Kenyan, who was unable to respond. Thugwane, suffering from cramps and discomfort from some way out, had managed to prevail. Now he was done. It was his inaugural international victory and it proved that his fifth place at the World Half-Marathon Championships in France in October was no fluke.

At the time, Masya was nigh-invincible. He streaked to a string of four victories in the Great North Run and had won the World Half-Marathon Championships in 1992. He might have been suffering the after effects of a bout of malaria in Honolulu, no one is quite sure. To beat him and Muindi (who finished third) was no small achievement. Suddenly, Thugwane had become an athlete to watch.

Thugwane’s stellar form continued into the New Year. In February 1996, he won the SA Marathon Championships on a blustery course in Cape Town, although he did so in a comparatively slow time. There was controversy about Thugwane’s win from the very beginning. Ordinarily, the winner would be a shoo-in for the Olympic team, but the administrators tut-tutted and wrung their hands. Banele Sindane, the head of Athletics South Africa, was not convinced of Thugwane’s credentials. Then Old Mutual, sponsors of the SA Champs, weighed in. With race organiser, Bernard Rose, a prominent voice, they pointed out that it devalued their sponsorship if the winner of a race they supported wasn’t deemed good enough for the Olympics. “We announced the team directly after the race,” says Bob Norris, then manager of the men’s Olympic marathon team. “And we chose Thugwane because we felt he would be well suited to the Atlanta conditions, not because he was the fastest. It certainly created major unhappiness with Lawrence Peu’s manager because we chose Lawrence as a travelling reserve.” In the event, Thugwane found himself in the team for Atlanta, along with Xolile Yawa and Gert Thys. Peu was chosen but not expected to run except in an emergency.

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With the proceeds from Thugwane’s win in Honolulu the previous year – he was given R47 000 from a purse of $20 000, he says – he bought a second-hand 2.2 Mazda Drifter bakkie for R37 000. When driving along the back roads of Mpumalanga in his bakkie shortly after the SA Marathon Champs, Thugwane recognised two hitchhikers on the side of the road and stopped to offer them a lift. He suspected that something was wrong when he noticed he was being followed by another car, but all he could do was wait it out and hope for the best. Then one of the two hitchhikers pulled a gun on him and when they tried to grab his keys from the ignition, he swerved. In the ensuing scuffle he was shot through the fleshy part of the chin. Bleeding profusely, he flung himself from the car, injuring his back in the process. In the relief of discovering that he had survived the tumble, he realised that he was wounded and that he was struggling to walk. And if he couldn’t walk, what chance was there that he’d be able to run? “I was hurt so badly,” he said at the time. “I lost all hope. I did not think I would be in the Olympics. I did not even think I would recover.”

Every day for three weeks a mine driver transported Thugwane into Witbank where he saw a physiotherapist. She worked on a bulging disc in his lower back, patiently nursing his body and spirit back to health. He began to run again. His bakkie was found by the police and returned. With other members of the team, he attended a high-altitude training camp in Sabie. Before long he was packing his bag with a 5kg sack of mealie meal, kissing Zodwa goodbye and heading off to Albuquerque for a pre-Olympic training camp organised by his new Colombian agent, Tony Pozzo.

Pozzo was assisted in the organising of the camp by Jacques Malan, a new figure on the landscape. A manager in the Forex Department of FNB in the Johannesburg CBD, Malan was born in Dundee in Northern KwaZulu-Natal. A Comrades Marathon athlete with a big heart (he finished the Comrades nine or 10 times, according to his wife, Annelize), Malan was passionate about the sport. Added to his zeal was a logistical wizardry. “Jacques could get things done,” says Annelize. “He took time off from his job at Bank-City to be with the athletes in the house in Albuquerque and, because he could speak Zulu, he and Josia became very good friends. You could say that Jacques was a bit of a houseboy for those guys.”

When Thugwane’s 5kg bag of mealie meal had been polished off by the hungry athletes, it was Malan who picked up the phone to Sam Ramsamy, head of the National Olympic Committee of South Africa (NOCSA), pleading for more. Malan did the laundry and most of the cooking in the Albuquerque house, but was gently prevented from straying into the realms of the sacred. Pap was Thugwane’s domain. “There were five in the house, so we finished my bag [of mealie meal] quickly,” says Thugwane. “Jacques had to make a plan with Sam Ramsamy for more bags. We ate morogo [wild African spinach] and sometimes cabbage. Also steak. Me, I specialise in pap.

“In the training camp in New Mexico I got to know Jacques a little bit better. He was a very nice person. My father. Whenever I had a problem I went to Jacques. He understood me as an athlete.”

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Although he suffered from occasional bouts of loneliness, Thugwane loved being in Albuquerque. He liked the environment, the big blue skies, and he felt reassured having Yawa close by. He pumped the older man for information, squeezing him for intel and anecdote. He often woke early, while the rest of the house was still asleep, to head off into the hills on an early-morning run, returning to catch up on the sleep he’d missed before the rest of the house had even woken.

The days were long, the routine unvarying: early-morning training for Thugwane, usually followed by lighter formal training later in the day. Sometimes the group trooped across to neighbour John Bednarski’s house to use his telephone to call home. Thugwane was persuaded to cut off his dreadlocks, and it was respectfully suggested that there was no need to put his bed on bricks to ward off the tokoloshe. Big meals punctuated the steady rhythm of running and sleeping. Towards evening, there was often a walk in the hills. “They didn’t mess around either,” recalls Bob Norris. “They headed off at pace, walking 6, 8, 10km, I guess, before returning home.”

Norris remembers that Thugwane could be staunchly literal about middle-of-the day training distances. “About three or four weeks before the Olympics, we were up in the mountains and it’s damn hot, so we said to him, ‘Jos, you’ve run 32km, are you sure you want to continue?’ He turned to us all in the car and said that the training schedule demanded 37km, so that was what he was going to do.”

Other than dwindling supplies of pap, there were precious few distractions in the months leading up to the Olympics. The group went on a jaunt to the movies, where they were enthralled by The Nutty Professor. Thugwane had three rotten front teeth removed, requiring a period of convalescence, the procedure recalling George Orwell’s famous quote in The Road to Wigan Pier that people over 30 in industrial areas who still have their own teeth “is coming to be an abnormality”. The extraction possibly explains his slightly lopsided smile in the post-victory celebration photographs. For his time in the dentist’s chair, he received a T-shirt that read: I had my teeth pulled by Dr Traub.

Only weeks before the Olympics, Yawa discovered a stress fracture of the tibia and was replaced by Peu. The disappointment in the camp was palpable. Yawa was a source of wisdom and inspiration to Thugwane, invaluable in helping him with his speed work and fartlek, a type of speed training developed in Scandinavia in which athletes continually vary their pace. For his part, Peu was doubly thrilled: not expecting to run in Atlanta, he’d decided to run a half-marathon in Paris on the way home. He had booked a flight to New York, another across the Atlantic via Paris, and eventually on to Rome before changing his mind at the last minute. He was happy he had. News later filtered through that the flight he was meant to take, TWA Flight 800 to Rome, had crashed into the sea off Long Island. There were no survivors.

Although they remained in Albuquerque until shortly before the start of the Centennial Games, Norris impressed upon the team the need to attend the opening ceremony. The team flew in from New Mexico, not realising who had been chosen to light the Olympic flame. The organisers successfully managed to keep Muhammad Ali’s appearance secret, so there was a collective intake of breath when Ali appeared high above them in a white suit, walking slowly. His left arm shook visibly, the result of Parkinson’s disease, but he was composed enough to light the flame with a torch, held in his right hand. Thugwane and the team were thrilled. Ali’s lighting of the flame made the experience of being at the Olympics so much more concrete and tangible.

After the opening ceremony the team returned to Albuquerque, where it was cooler than midsummer Atlanta. They arrived back in the athletes’ village three days before the men’s marathon, traditionally the final event of the Games. Thugwane and the rest of the team woke at 5am on the morning of the race, which had been brought forward to a 7:05am start to offset Atlanta’s cloying heat. Thugwane asked Norris to pop down to a McDonald’s for a white bread roll for breakfast, which he ate while sipping rooibos tea. Norris recalls that the South Africans warmed up together. Few other teams, he noticed, did the same. It struck him as propitious. The South Africans reckoned that they would hunt as a pack; that way one of them would be sure to be there at the end.

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It was an open field in a difficult-to-call race. Spain’s Martín Fiz had a chance, as did Luíz dos Santos of Brazil. In with a shout too were António Pinto of Portugal, Dionicio Cerón of Mexico and Rich Nerurkar of Great Britain. The South Africans were strengthened by their unity as a team – many of the pre-race favourites ran as individuals – a fact reinforced when all three, Thys, Peu and Thugwane, surged to the front of the leading bunch after 24km.

Approaching the 27km mark, the green wall was joined by Lee Bong-ju,Thugwane’s old adversary from the Honolulu Marathon.Thugwane was respectful of the South Korean. Running in his distinctive white headband, Bong-ju was strong-striding and inscrutable. Thugwane was wary.

By 31km, the leading pack of around 30 had thinned. Thys and Peu melted away, many others also finding the pace and humidity too much. Thugwane moved ahead and Bong-ju responded. They were joined by Kenya’s Erick Wainaina, with his economical, upright stride, as the three jockeyed for ascendancy in the last quarter of the race. “I ran too slowly which allowed Wainaina to join us and then it was three – that was a mistake,” said Thugwane. “I wanted to kick before that but the guys said, ‘No, no, it’s too early, you can’t,’ and then, suddenly, Wainaina came to join.”

Thugwane was blithely unconcerned by Wainaina, who was running only his fifth marathon. Even though the Kenyan went into a slight lead at just over 35.5km, it didn’t faze the South African. “I wasn’t worried,” says Thugwane. “I saw how hard he had to work just to remain in front – Lee Bong-ju was the one I feared.”

With 5km to go, all three were neck and neck, floating through growing early-morning crowds as the end approached. The pace never wavered, the three remaining a close bunch. The lead changed hands several times: first Wainaina strode into a brief lead before being caught; then Thugwane surged, before he too was hauled in. No other athlete was in sight. It was just Wainaina, Thugwane and Lee Bong-ju, three men for three medals. In what order, nobody knew.

The final water station was just outside the stadium and it was here that Thugwane made his move. Finding energy he didn’t know he had, he darted past the South Korean and the Kenyan as he skipped down the ramp towards the stadium itself. As he flowed onto the track he shot several looks behind him, two over his right shoulder, another over his left; the distance between him and Lee Bong-ju and Wainaina remained – but only just.

As Thugwane clipped into the stadium he was greeted with a surge of noise and colour. He remembers looking up and seeing Malan in the stands, frantically shouting that he needed to do a full lap before he could finish. Again he glanced anxiously over his shoulder. Lee Bong-ju, having eclipsed Wainaina in the tunnel, was now in second place, less than 10 seconds behind. Thundering down the back straight, Thugwane circled the track, maintaining his lead. He was nearly home. As he crossed the line, he found the strength to join the tips of his fingers together above his head, repeating the motion three times. He had beaten the South Korean by three seconds, with the unheralded Kenyan coming third. It was the closest finish in Olympic marathon history.

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Twelve hours later, as part of the closing ceremony, Thugwane received the gold medal, the first black South African to do so. A man of few words, he said that only months before he had lost all hope because of the hijacking of his bakkie. He dedicated the victory to Nelson Mandela and the newly enfranchised people of South Africa. “His efforts to end apartheid made us all free,” said Thugwane. “Free to run.”

Thugwane’s post-Atlanta life has been an improvement on his early years minding cattle on his uncle’s farm, but has not been without complication. Coca-Cola, headquartered in Atlanta, sponsored him until the Sydney Games, specifying that the relationship would only be renewed if he won gold in Sydney, which he failed to do. The Atlanta office became embroiled in a disagreement with their South African subsidiary, who had to stump up Thugwane’s sponsorship money – an obligation they honoured with reluctance. He has been similarly mistreated by sponsors such as Liberty Life, who told him he was no good as an ambassador if he wasn’t running at all times. His relationship with Athletics South Africa and NOCSA is too tangled a web to unravel.

Such tribulations are minor when compared to what Thugwane suffered as a younger man. He recently sold his house in Cresta in north-western Johannesburg and returned to the land on which he grew up. He currently lives on a 30-hectare farm outside of Bronkhorstspruit and is, by all accounts, happy. His daughters are well provided for through a trust fund. He has petrol for his car and there is food on the table. “Josia has always told me that he doesn’t want to live large,” says Dries Lessing, his new manager, a man as remarkable in his own quiet way as was Malan. “He suffers from asthma and worries about his health. He has an obsession that he’s not going to leave anything for his children if he dies, so there’s good money in the trust.”

Thugwane’s greatest heartbreak concerns Malan. In 1998 Malan was diagnosed with colon cancer. The cancer spread to his liver and by the end of June 2000, shortly before Thugwane left for Sydney, he was dead. Although his friend has been dead for over 18 years, Thugwane still misses him terribly. It was a wildly improbable relationship: the son of a Dundee policeman who befriended an illiterate minder of cattle from the backwaters of Mpumalanga. They shared a common language and a profound love of athletics, but agreed to disagree about who was best qualified to cook pap. They were many things – friends, brothers, a father and son – but, finally, they were simply proud South Africans together.

Undated: The book cover for Ian Hawkey and Luke Alfred’s Vuvuzela Dawn: 25 Sporting Stories that Shaped a New Nation, published by Pan Macmillan South Africa in 2019.
Undated: The book cover for Ian Hawkey and Luke Alfred’s Vuvuzela Dawn: 25 Sporting Stories that Shaped a New Nation, published by Pan Macmillan South Africa in 2019. 
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