The Makhethe household boasts two national champions in a sport in which predominantly white athletes compete in South Africa. And siblings Tshepang and Phethisang are determined to break even more barriers in the hammer throw event.
The older of the Makhethes at 25, Tshepang shocked South Africa’s athletics scene when he broke Chris Harmse’s 23-year winning streak, which is also the Guinness World Record for the most successive athletics titles. Tshepang, the prince of hammer, dethroned South Africa’s undisputed king of the sport last year with a 72.25m throw to win gold at the annual Athletics South Africa (ASA) National Track and Field Championships in Germiston. Harmse had to settle for silver.
In another impressive performance from the siblings, it took 17-year-old Phethisang just one throw at last year’s ASA Youth and Junior Track and Field Championships to be crowned champion of the hammer throw in her age category. She threw a remarkable 65.07m, falling less than 2m short of the national youth record Tharina van der Walt set in 2017.
The Makhethes now want to challenge for the senior titles in the men and women’s categories. Had it not been for the Covid-19 pandemic, Phethisang would have competed in her first Senior National Championships from 23 to 25 April at the Pilditch Stadium in Pretoria. But the ASA, like most sporting bodies, has suspended all their competitions owing to the pandemic. This has left Phethisang more time to focus on other commitments, such as her education at Sasolburg Technical High School.
“Balancing school and sport is not easy. There’s a lot of schoolwork that I need to get through. At the school, I am the only one who plays sport at this level. I still have to go to school. There’s no special treatment. But the school is supportive,” she said.
Bonding through hammer throw
Although the siblings both love the sport and have similar goals, including an Olympic medal, they differ when it comes to personality. Tshepang is loud and chatty. It doesn’t take him a long time to open up and start cracking jokes with people he’s known for less than an hour. Phethisang is reserved and keeps to herself. She could easily be missed in a crowd of young athletes as she prefers to remain in the background and out of sight.
She is a different person when her brother is around though. They become goofy together and almost finish each other’s sentences. They feed off of each other’s energy with the eldest leading the way. They are more than just siblings, they are best friends.
“We always want to better each other. Hammer closed the age gap between us. It has brought us closer,” explained Tshepang.
Tshepang’s move from home in Sasolburg, where he was studying at the North West University Vaal campus, to be based at the University of Pretoria, changed their relationship slightly. They don’t get to see each other as often as they would like and they also train separately.
“I can look up to him for advice and he’s supportive, kind and humble. We’re double the trouble when we are together. I feel more like myself when he’s around,” Phethisang said with a wide smile.
Phethisang’s admiration for her older brother shows in her eyes, which makes it easy to understand why she fell in love with the same sport as Tshepang. When she was 11 years old, she would tag along to his training sessions with his coach, Basie Kuhn. Tshepang was training for his trip to the World Youth Championships in Ukraine and from then on, she was hooked.
“I’d be lying if I said I pictured us being this good together, at the same time. She’s a person who, if she doesn’t get something right, she loses interest. She’s that type of person. I didn’t think she was going to last long. Well, she proved me wrong. She is here.
“Basie was a bit tough on her and she cried after her first session. I told her to toughen up because if she was going to cry again, I was not going to take her with [to training],” Tshepang said.
Tshepang didn’t have an easy start either. He was the only black thrower at his first competition. He began his journey with a victory in the Under-15 division, beating his competitors by a 10m-margin. Phethisang looks like a thrower while Tshepang is lanky and much leaner compared with his competitors, who are bulky.
“She’s an ideal female thrower. She’s gonna do a lot of things. I’m the lightest thrower in the country,” said Tshepang.
The siblings’ objectives
They want to change the narrative of the sport in the country by representing South Africa in the biggest competition for track and field.
“It would really mean a lot to actually make it to the Olympic Games. Like I said, black people don’t think throws, discuss, shot put are our thing. They never think of the more explosive events, the throwing events, as black people’s events. I feel like going to the Games would be the first step to opening up black children’s minds that it’s not only about the track. The field is where the fun is. The field is where opportunities lie and I feel like because of that narrative, it would change a lot for all the other throwing events in the country,” said Tshepang.
Hammer throwing isn’t as sexy as other forms of track and field like sprinting, which has captured the country’s imagination. Upcoming hammer throwers, especially in previously disadvantaged areas, don’t have much coaching support and once athletes break through, they struggle to find sponsors.
“As a brand, you have certain values you embody and when you find one or two athletes who are in line with what you’re about, you don’t necessarily need to make them a face of your brand. Athletes are creative people. We’re forced to be creative, in a sense we’re always trying to figure out ways of being better. Any brand that takes an athlete on should be given creative input to get people to know about the brand and what you do as well,” he added.
The uncertainty caused by the lockdown and the Covid-19 pandemic means Tshepang’s aspirations for the year have been put on hold, as there is no clear picture of when normality will return.
“The first big goal is to successfully defend my national title. I didn’t work so hard only to be a champ for one year. The goal is to improve my personal best, every athlete’s goal is to be better than the previous year. The second one is to get a medal at African Championships. At the last one [in Nigeria in 2018], I finished fourth. Those were my second one. My first African Championships were in 2016 in Durban and I was third there,” said Tshepang.
Although their domination of the sport in the country may be delayed at the moment, it is inevitable that the Makhethe siblings will forge a path for future black throwers.