Thugwane, Josia 1971–
Josia Thugwane 1971–
When Josia Thugwane crossed the finish line in the marathon event at the Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996, he became the first black South African to win an Olympic gold medal. During most of his life, South Africa had been banned from Olympic competition as a result of international sanctions against the human-rights abuses of its apartheid regime. “Not since Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin in 1936 had a more powerful racial statement been made on an Olympic track,” declared Leigh Montville in Sports Illustrated.
The marathon, a traditional event in the Olympics that dates back to the Games’ ancient Greek origins, is a 26mile foot race, and could legitimately be considered the most grueling of all Olympic events. Thugwane’s size may have helped his speed—he stands just five feet two inches in height, and weighs but 100 pounds. Yet all the more remarkable for Thugwane’s achievement were the array of circumstances and limitations that had already challenged him in his short lifetime. When he won the Olympic medal, he could not read or write, and lived in a tin shack in one of South Africa’s violence-prone black townships. Before the Games, he was still working as a janitor, cleaning toilets and kitchens at Koornfontein Coal Mine for about $330 a month. Just five months earlier, he had been shot in the face in a carjacking.
Thugwane was born in the early 1970s and is of Ndebele heritage, a nation of herders and farmers, 2 million strong, who are one of the indigenous inhabitants of the veldt, or grassy lands, that stretch between South Africa and Zimbabwe. His parents divorced when he was a baby, and he grew up on his grandmother’s farm, where chores and its remote setting made it impossible for him to attend school. The rural situation for black South Africans was anything but idyllic. A security guard for the mines where Thugwane later worked, Faro Makhubedu, explained the economic constraints of the veldt and white-dominated rural South Africa to Montville in the Sports Illustrated article. “A black man can live on the land, but he must work for the Afrikaner for food to feed his family,” Makhubedu said. “The black man not only must work, but he must provide a son to work. If the black man becomes sick or if he dies, a son must replace him. Even if the man has worked 30 or 40 years, if there is no one to replace him, the family must leave the land,” he continued.
Thugwane was an avid soccer player as a teen, but by the age of 17 realized his diminutive size would limit any chances for career prowess. Instead he began running, winning $15 in his first race, and though it appeared to be a relatively easy sport—a solo endeavor that needed no real equipment except a pair of shoes—obtaining those sneakers proved a true obstacle in an environment
At a Glance…
Born c. 1971, in South Africa; married; wife’s name, Zodwa; four children.
Career: Employed by the Koornfontein Coal Mine, in Bethal, South Africa, as a kitchen worker, then janitor.
Awards: Won several prestigious intl. marathons; gold medal in men’s marathon, 1996 Summer Olympic Games, Atlanta.
Addresses: Home—South Africa. Agent—Posso Intl. Promotions Inc., 11007 N. 56th St., Ste. 202, Tampa, FL 33617-2953.
so impoverished. “I did not have the money tor new shoes, but there was a guy, he had a pair of shoes, the same size as mine,” Thugwane told Montville in Sports Illustrated. “He said he would sell them to me for 180 rand [about $40]. They had not been used much. He said he would let me pay a little bit, then a little bit, then a little bit. I ran races, and if I won any money, I gave it to him for the shoes.”
Thugwane eventually obtained a kitchen job at one of the mines, a strategy that coincided with his athletic ambitions. South Africa’s powerful mines have sports teams that compete against those of other mines, and Thugwane was hired because of his athletic abilities. He did not have a coach, but was able to train with the Koornfontein team. He also moved into the township near the mine, where he built a tin shack. As a result of South Africa’s apartheid policies, conditions in these segregated black communities could be described as wretched. Such townships do not even possess street names, just numbers for the shacks, and electricity is provided by generators. There is no running water, only concrete outhouses.
But building his own small home was a goal for Thugwane, and he was proud of the money he was now earning at both the mines and in races; he was also happy that circumstances did not force him to take a more dangerous job in the mine itself. He found an agent, a British man named Tony Longhurst, who suggested training schedules and a diet, and by 1993 Thugwane was winning or placing in some of the world’s toughest long-distance races. He placed third in Israel’s Dead Sea Marathon, and won the South African Marathon that same year. With the prizewinnnings, he was able to quit work for a time and devote the necessary three months to the ingoma, the tribal rite for Ndebele men. He was circumcised the first day, and spent three months isolated from the rest of the world. He and the other men of his ingoma wore loincloths and underwent religious training; if the circumcision wound healed, one’s blood was considered “good”—untainted by bad spirits—and the man would be allowed to take a wife.
Thugwane healed, and married a woman named Zodwa, and they had a daughter they named Zandi. But he was unable to get his job back at the mines for a time, and turned down a Koornfontein offer for a position inside the mine proper, rightfully fearing that the coal dust would damage his respiratory system. So he constructed another shack next door to his own, and began selling beer from it; this is a typical township bar called a shebeen. In 1994 he went back to work as a janitor at Koornfontein, and competed in several other international marathons. He won the Foot of Africa race in Bredasdorp in late 1994, but was compelled to drop out of the 1995 New York City Marathon after 18 miles because of leg cramps.
Though he won first place in the Honolulu Marathon not long afterward, Thugwane’s adversity in New York hurt his chances of qualifying for a place on South Africa’s Olympic team. The latter race had been an Olympic qualifier, so now his only chance was to win the South Africa Marathon in 1996; if the winner of that race was not already an Olympic team member, a spot would be given to him. The team would go on to represent South Africa in its first Olympic Games as a new, majority-ruled nation. At the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, black South Africans competed for the first time, but with the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela as president and a new, majority-rule government in place, the 1996 Summer Games held an added significance for the country and its newly created citizenry.
Thugwane won the South Africa Marathon, and embarked upon a serious training regimen in anticipation of Atlanta. With some money he had won, he had bought a Mazda pickup truck, which meant that he could now buy beer for his shebeen directly from the distributor for a lower price, rather than buy from the township liquor store. This earned him some enemies, but Thugwane’s overall success on the international marathon circuit had also caused resentment. In March of 1996, he stopped his truck to give some hitchhikers a ride—a common practice in the townships—but one of the men, whom he had recognized, instead got into another car that had suddenly pulled up behind the truck. A third car pulled in front, and one of the hitchhikers brandished a gun. Thugwane stepped on the gas, tried to swerve, and was shot in the face. He managed to jump out of the vehicle while it was still moving, and injured his back in the leap. He also earned an inch-long scar on his chin from the gunshot.
The police were disinterested in investigating the case, though he could identify one of the men involved. Leaving his wife and two young daughters behind to travel to Atlanta now seemed foolhardy. “I was scared,” Thugwane told Montville in the Sports Illustrated interview. “Threats were brought to me after the incident. I was told that I would be killed. This is a place where threats are serious. I was scared for my family. I did not want to leave them alone, but what could I do? I could only trust in God.” The coach for the South African marathon team, Jacques Malan, had convinced the country’s Olympic committee to fund pre-Game training in the high-altitude climate of Albuquerque, New Mexico. “We all were scared,” another South African marathoner, Lawrence Peu, told Montville. “We all had families back home. We were gone, and it was public knowledge. Anyone could come to our houses and do anything. It was very easy for them.”
But difficult as leaving the township behind might have been, Thugwane, Peu and the other South Africans thrived in the mountain climate, and often emerged victorious when they informally competed with teams from other countries who also trained in Albuquerque. During his time spent in New Mexico, Thugwane’s teammates convinced him to shear off his dreadlocks, he suffered a toothache and had to undergo three extractions, and telephoned his wife every day.
At the Atlanta Games, runner Hezekiel Sepang won a silver medal in the first week, becoming South Africa’s first black medalist. Thugwane and his teammates were not there—Malan knew the camaraderie of the Olympic Village would distract them, and detained them in Albuquerque for more training until the end of the second week. The marathon is traditionally scheduled for the last day of the Games, with the starting gun fired at 6 p.m., but the Georgia heat and humidity was so devastating that the race was rescheduled to the early morning hours.
Under Malan’s strategy, Thugwane, Peu, and Gert Thys, the other South African marathoner, held to a pace that eventually overtook the other runners and then their main competitor, Lee Bong-Ju of South Korea. Thugwane then pulled ahead of Lee at the last mile, and then he, Lee, and Eric Wainaina from Kenya entered the stadium at the same time, with Thugwane in the lead. It was the first time that the soon-to-be Olympic medalists in the marathon had ran their final lap in the stadium at the same time since the 1948 Games, a thrilling moment for the several thousand spectators assembled. Thugwane crossed the finish line at two hours, 12 minutes, 36 seconds, checking his watch as he did so.
Thugwane then ran a victory lap in sunglasses, carrying South Africa’s new flag. His family and friends were able to watch his victory from the sole television set in their township neighborhood. At a press conference after the medal ceremony, Thugwane stated, “This is for my country. This is for my president. I’m grateful I have this opportunity. It is an indication to others that if we work hard, all of us have equal opportunity, not like in the past.”
Back home, Thugwane was offered a new Mercedes car, but declined it after learning how much the shipping costs and taxes would set him back—and perhaps remembering what happened to his Mazda pickup. He did, however, acquire a quite practical cellular phone, and was anticipating lucrative sponsorship deals that would mean he would no longer have to work as a janitor, nor buy running shoes on credit. There were still problems at home, however. “The people in the township are saying I no longer want to be associated with them,” Sports Illustrated’s Kostya Kennedy reported him as saying.” They think I’m rich now. I fear for my wife and children,” he continued. There were even rumors of a plot to kill him, and he was assaulted in January of 1997 in another traffic-related incident and even briefly hospitalized.
For a time, Thugwane and his family were able to move to housing within the confines of the Koornfontein mines, in a residential area that was once whites-only, and thus was blessed with such luxuries as running water. The mine company even hired security guards for his home, and the provincial government sent a bodyguard along for his public appearances. Eventually Thugwane was able to purchase a home in the Johannesburg suburb of Middelburg, a formerly whites-only enclave in the days of apartheid. “I want to stay at home now,” an Associated Press wire report quoted Thugwane as saying. “I want to start training. Medals won’t matter when I am dead. I don’t care where I live, I just want to be safe,” he added.
The house in Middelburg possessed five bedrooms, a necessity for Thugwane’s growing family that now numbered four children. He continued to compete, taking third place in the London Marathon and winning the Fukuoka Marathon in Japan in 1997. He had also signed a deal with Coca-Cola Southern Africa for a Youth Development Program that would bear his name. Over $2 million in pledges were slated for the project, aimed at creating a network of sports programs for South African youngsters. A training track near Thugwane’s home and a line of clothing bearing his name were in the works as part of the Coca-Cola project.
Thugwane’s next quest was overcoming illiteracy. When he came home, Zodwa had to read him the newspaper accounts of his historic victory that described him as one of the heroes of South African athletics. By 1997 he had made a great deal of progress after setting up a classroom on an enclosed patio at his Middelburg home for daily sessions with a teacher. He was quite pleased about being able to participate far more comfortably in television interviews, and even about conducting a bank transaction by himself. “It’s more difficult than running, but I’m learning to be independent,” Thugwane told the Johannesburg Sunday Times Gillian Anstley about learning to read and write in Zulu. “Soon, I won’t need people to do things for me anymore…. They can steal my gold medal, but no one can ever take away my education.”
Runner’s World, November 1996, p. 84.
Sports Illustrated, September 16, 1996, p. 16; October 21, 1996, p. 72.
Washington Post, August 5, 1996, p. C1.
Additional information for this profile was provided by an Associated Press wire report of October 28, 1998, at http://www.sportserver.com, February 20, 1999; an education supplement to the Johannesburg Sunday Times at http://www.suntimes.co.za, February 20, 1999; an Associated Press wire report from September 12, 1996, at http://www.coolrunning.com, February 20, 1999; and an article from Bob Kravitz of Scripps Howard News Service at http://espnet.sportszone.com, February 20, 1999.