As our country emerges from the devastating effects of Covid-19 and the impact it has on all of us and our country, we need something to inspire us, to be all we can be. That inspiration is the XXXII Olympiad, better known to us as the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and 16th Summer Paralympic Games. There have only ever been 3 disruptions to the Summer Olympics schedule prior to 2020. In 1916 during World War 1, 1940 and 1944 during World War 2.
The adrenalin in our veins, the beat of our heart and the sweat on our forehead when playing or competing is why we love to watch the world’s top athletes compete. We see a little of us in them. They are running, swimming, jumping, for us. They inspire us to work harder, to be better and achieve more.
As kids, our caretakers tell us, you can be anything you want to be so dream big. Being anything you dream you can be is essentially misguided. We all had our own unique dreams as kids. Astronaut, professional sports person, fighter pilot and many more. While a tiny percentage of people achieve these dreams, the majority have to re-adjust our dreams to match the reality of our lives and the world.
We can and must still dream, set our goals high, make them achievable with hard work and dedication. Imagine you are a runner. Your first run may have been 2km, then you progressed 5, 10, 21 and eventually a marathon. You set your sites on completing the Comrades Marathon; that’s your dream and with hard work, sacrifice, dedication and yes pain you could complete it. Like anything in life worth achieving, it’s a progression, a journey that once achieved will add countless positives to your life.
Let’s explore stories of athletes that reached the pinnacle of their disciplines.
1996 was a big year for South African sport. Even in 2021, 25 years later people still talk about our win in the Final of the Africa Cup of Nations. The late Clive Barker’s squad that included names like Doctor Khumalo, Phil Masinga, Lucas Radebe and Neil Tovey became household names that are fondly remembered today. With two goals in 2 minutes after coming on as a substitute in the 65th minute, who can forget Mark Williams? Many of the 1996 squad are regulars on TV and radio. This victory achieved within a year of winning the Rugby World Cup.
The “Rainbow Nation” with President Nelson Mandela at the helm was viewed as a picture-perfect example of democracy and diversity. In 1996, just 2 years after South Africa’s first democratic election we participated in the XXVI Olympiad, in Atlanta, USA. South Africa won 5 medals, 3 Gold, 1 Silver and 1 Bronze. The name Penny Heyns without a doubt is the person the majority of South Africans remember. A Gold medalist in the woman’s 100m and 200m breaststroke.
Another athlete has an incredible story that we should all hear. This athlete should not have a single opening in his diary but sits at home waiting for an invitation to share his incredible journey and inspire South Africans. Schools, charities, societies etc. are missing out on the opportunity to hear his story and be gifted with his wisdom profound enough to change lives. Even worse, having observed the character of the man, he would most likely do it for free.
The forgotten champion and hero is Josia Thugwane, the first Black athlete to win an Olympic gold for South Africa. Born in Bethal Eastern Transvaal, now Mpumalanga in 1971. His parents divorced when he was a baby and he grew up on the farm where his grandmother worked. The family’s poverty and remoteness of the farm prevented him from going to school. When he ran in the Olympic Marathon, he still could not read or write.
As a teen Josia was an avid footballer. At 17 he realised being 157.5 centimeters tall and weighing just 45 kilograms was a limiting factor for success as a soccer player. His size and weight, however, enabled him to run faster than most other long-distance runners. Besides that, it was a solo sport and didn’t require more than a pair of running shoes. Too many of us affording a decent pair of running shoes is no big deal, but for Josia who could hardly afford bread, he couldn’t just pop into the local sports store and buy a pair. He found an acquaintance who had a pair that was the same size he wore. He said he would sell Josia the mildly used pair for R180 a tremendous amount for Josia. Luckily, he agreed to let Josia pay him off. Using money he won at races he slowly made payments.
He got a job at the local mine, cleaning kitchens and toilets. That gave him the flexibility to train which he wouldn’t have had if he had become a miner. He moved into the township next to the mine and built himself a shack, where he lived until the games. In 1993 he won the South African marathon and placed third in Israel’s Dead Sea Marathon. He was firmly on course to become one of the world’s best. In 1995 he took part in the New York Marathon, an Olympic qualifying race. After only 29km he withdrew due to leg cramps. This left him one more chance to qualify, the South African Marathon that he needed to win to qualify, which he did.
By the time 1996 rolled around nothing could stop him. Then before the games, the violent society so many South Africans live in claimed another victim. He was car-jacked, shot and had to jump clear of his moving car to escape the criminals. With an injured back, a scar on his chin where fortunately the bullet only grazed him, he had just 5 months to get over the physical and emotional trauma of almost losing his life. A testament to his spirit and drive to uplift his family. With the help of therapy and raw determination, he lined up at the start of the last event of the games.
The race was a nail biting affair. Josia pulled ahead in the final 1.6km trailed closely by Lee Bong-Ju of South Korea and Eric Wainaina from Kenya. They all entered the stadium at the same time, the first time the medalists had run a lap of the finishing stadium since 1948. The rest as they say is, history Josia Thugwane, despite the mountain of adversity life threw at him, he triumphed and became Olympic champion in a time of 2 hours, 12 minutes, 36 seconds.
If you want to be inspired, encourage your lecturers, coaches, community leaders and club leaders to contact Josia so he can inspire South Africans those who have lost faith because of the chaos of the last 18 months. Don’t look for heroes on TV or YouTube, most are not real, look to your own country we have plenty to be inspired by in our back yard.
It would be remiss of us if we didn’t mention the other two champions of the Atlanta Olympic Games. Hezekiél Sepeng won a silver medal in the men’s 800m and Marianne Kriel who won a bronze medal in the women’s 100m backstroke.
One last thing Josia Thugwane conquered literacy he learned to read and write. He told Sunday Times journalist Gillian Anstley, “they can steal my gold medal, but no one can ever take away my education.” Long Live Josia Thugwane, Long Live.
Thank you for reading another blog in our series. We hope you take a lesson from every post. The Fields appreciate our residents, the future leaders of our nation we hope one day when people look up to you and listen to your journey you’ll remember us and the story of Josia Thugwane. There are amazing opportunities to win prizes and gain opportunities – come see our latest deals for you. We look forward to hearing from you.
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