It was one of the enduring images of the Tokyo Olympics: Botswana’s Nijel Amos and American Isaiah Jewett tumbling to the track in the semifinal of the 800m, then helping each other up, dreams of Olympic glory gone, and jogging to the finish line together on Sunday night 1 August.
For Amos, who went into the Games with the fastest 800m time in the world this year, the global response was an unexpected one.
“I was surprised about how it moved the world,” he admitted afterwards. “For us, it was just normal support one would get in our situation, there for each other. The emotions we felt connected us just as the Olympic motto says: ‘United by Emotion’.”
Despite the amicable scenes, Amos was devastated after the fall.
“In that second so many voices played in my head – ‘this is your Olympic dream ending’ being the loudest. But I just had to face reality head-on at that moment. That’s just how racing is, especially in the 800m, so many mishaps can happen.”
What Amos did not realise at that moment was that another surprise was in store as officials decided he had been impeded on the track and should be reinstated in the final, which then comprised nine runners instead of the usual eight.
Speaking afterwards, he said: “God came through for me. I had made peace about what happened when I walked out of that stadium. To find out that night I was in the finals, I experienced God’s hand in action. We didn’t have to protest, the referees just placed me in. It was just sad I wasn’t in the situation to be at my best in that final.”
Deep down Amos already knew a medal was unlikely. He had injured his quad muscle in the fall and, as he put it, was effectively running on one leg.
“It’s quite a serious injury. If it wasn’t the Olympics I wouldn’t have raced that final. I did it through so much pain banking on an adrenaline rush to mask it, but it didn’t work that way.”
He eventually finished in eighth place in a disappointing 1:46.41 – well off the 1:42.91 he ran in Monaco just a month before the Games.
“My season was cut short because of that injury, so it’s back to the drawing board with rehab and strengthening.”
Rising from ill luck
Looking back over the 27 years of his life, the gutsy Amos is well accustomed to prevailing through adversity. He has no memories of either of his parents.
“My mum died when I was very young and I never met my father. I don’t have any memories of them at all. It’s kind of like they never existed. My grandmother raised me together with nine other children – my cousins and siblings – in a small village of Marobela. I was a typical farm boy spending the whole day looking after cattle.”
Running soon became his way out. He had no shoes in which to train and no particular interest in athletics, but his teachers persevered. They could see the talent and convinced the young Amos his future lay on the track.
“I was a soccer player, a striker with good speed. So, when I was out playing one of the games in junior school, the track coach of the senior school saw me. When I got to senior school he was always nagging me every time I met him in the corridors: ‘Please join my track team.’ So one day I decided to show up just to show him how bad I was, so he would leave me alone. Little did I know that my path would progress to being one of the world’s best,” he said.
“Mr Mafefe became more like a father to me as I was in boarding school, and we got some work done.”
It didn’t take long for that work to pay off and for Amos to excel on the global stage, claiming the world junior title in championship record time in July 2012, and then heading to the London Olympics just a few weeks later at the age of 18.
The 800m final in London was a race that would go down in history – not only for the incredible Kenyan David Rudisha’s world-record-breaking effort in taking gold, but also for no less than six personal bests set by the rest of the field. It would also produce Botswana’s first-ever Olympic medal of any kind as the young Amos powered to silver in a sensationally quick 1:41.73 to set a new world junior record. It is still the fastest he has ever run the 800m.
“I was just a free kid running without any scars in my mind of thinking too much or any kind of negative thoughts. I think that was my power,” he said.
Since that incredible day, Amos has struggled with injuries and other setbacks, but never to the point of quitting. He is yet to win a medal at the World Championships. He did, however, famously defeat the great Rudisha to claim Commonwealth Games gold in 2014.
“I’m now a different athlete. I’ve got scars in my mind that I have to get through before every start line,” he said of his struggles since 2012.
At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, the runner was eliminated in the first round after finishing seventh in his heat, a performance that prompted a move to Eugene, Oregon, in the United States.
“After the 2016 Olympic Games, when I got knocked out in the first round, I needed a change of environment,” he said.
Improved times, no medal
“The team here [in Oregon] really helped me be healthy again, which was the main priority of my programme in the first years with the team. We were controlling what we could and got it right, running 1:41:89 in Monaco [in 2019] – the fastest time in the world since the historic 800m race where I won my country’s first Olympic medal.
“I then headed into this Olympics with the fastest time in the world this year after overcoming some challenges that resulted in me racing only one competitive race ahead of the Games.”
That was the 1:42.91 he ran in Monaco in July.
It was – and still is – the quickest time run this year and boded well for earning a second Olympic medal for Botswana. But then came that fateful fall. The second medal earned for his unheralded country would eventually come from their 4x400m relay team instead – a bronze in an African record time of 2:57.27.
“Big motivation came from that. We are all one family so a win for our own is for all of us,” he said of the relay medal for Isaac Makwala, Baboloki Thebe, Zibane Ngozi and Bayapo Ndori.
“More especially for my brother Isaac, I was praying he would get that medal. He has been in this sport for years and showed resilience and the class he is in, so he deserved to walk out of his last Olympic Games with a medal.
“We are one of the most talented nations I know. One would think we have a great system in place for scouting and developing, but no. All these runners you see are athletes who go super-extreme extra steps to be visible and get the opportunity. Hopefully, in the future, we will have a much better system in place that can see even more athletes delivering to their best potential.”
The future and other interests
From a personal perspective, the quest continues to the next Olympics in Paris, three years from now. Before then, there’s a World Championships on his “home” turf in Oregon next July.
In the meantime, he’s been working on his golf swing as he recovers from that quad injury – a new pursuit since his previous hobby of DJing has been put on hold after the Covid pandemic hit.
“You won’t regret having me as DJ,” he quipped. “Got a touch of mood-spinning song selection. But since the pandemic started, I picked up golf and now I find myself spending more time playing it than any other hobby.”
There’s also the release of a documentary on his remarkable life to look forward to.
“I decided to take people behind the scenes to share with them my story, with the hope to inspire. This will be a documentary about my journey as a pro athlete and where I come from,” he said.
The release date has yet to be confirmed, but an enticing preview clip shows his beloved grandmother, Gakenaope, talking about Amos and how she fed him melons as a young boy.
He gets emotional when describing the woman who raised him.
“Man, that lady, she is the strongest person I know. She is motivated and full of life despite losing her seven children and her husband and being left to raise nine grandchildren. Each day she is like sunshine, living and giving gratitude.”
Like so many of the continent’s greatest athletes, it is the desire to look after his own family that has kept Amos going through all the injury and adversity.
“Being able to take care of my family is the biggest motivation, and striving to be a better athlete and, more importantly, a better human being through the platform of sport,” he said.
“I’m sad for what happened in Tokyo, but grateful. I know why I didn’t get the results I wanted. So, going forward, I know what to work on to be able to attain that.
“The gratitude level is more than the disappointment. I’m grateful I got an opportunity to line up at my third Olympic Games and got to share something more than the sport in the process – humility and humanity. I’m even more motivated [and] looking forward to Paris.”