SI Vault
Leigh Montville
October 21, 1996
When Josia Thugwane went home to South Africa after winning the Olympic marathon in Atlanta, he did not find fame and fortune, but threats and uncertainty
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October 21, 1996

Run For Your Life

When Josia Thugwane went home to South Africa after winning the Olympic marathon in Atlanta, he did not find fame and fortune, but threats and uncertainty

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Ownership of the house, sagging on one side because the plot of land is not level, until recently was Thugwane's biggest symbol of success. This was what he had gained from running and winning. Money was why he began to run races in the first place. Money was why he continued. Agonizingly small amounts of money. This corrugated box was what the money bought.

Until he was 17, Thugwane played soccer. He was so small, he knew he would go nowhere in the sport. He looked for options and noticed that road races paid prize money. That looked promising. Hadn't he always run, run everywhere, easy and fast, run across the fields for miles simply to see a friend or to buy a snack? He decided to take the sport seriously. He bought running shoes. It was not a simple matter.

"I did not have the money for new shoes, but there was a guy, he had a pair of shoes, the same size as mine," Thugwane says. "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. The final payment, I won 75 rand by winning a half marathon. Then a sport shop sold me shoes, Nike, the same deal. I finished fifth in a marathon at Sun City. I won 700 rand. I paid off those shoes."

His running gained him a job at the mines. The companies traditionally have had sports programs, mine against mine, and athletic success was a way to a job. Not a good job, perhaps, but a job. Thugwane worked in the kitchen of the workers' cafeteria. He ran with the mine's team in workouts and in races. He ran on his own. He had no coach, really. He added an agent, Tony Longhurst, an Englishman then living in South Africa, to find him better races. Longhurst sent along instructions on training procedures and eating habits, but Thugwane basically worked on his own.

By fall 1993 he had received a bit of international notice. He had finished third in Israel in the Dead Sea Marathon early that year, then won the South African Marathon. He had made some money. He quit the mines for three months, quit running. He went to be circumcised. He was 22.

"I had to go to school," he says, declining to offer graphic description. "I wanted to be married. I wanted to do it right. If I were to be married, I had to go to school."

"School" was the ingoma, the Ndebele tribal initiation rite for young men. The candidates are circumcised on the first day of the ordeal. The job is done with an okapi, a pocket knife, by a tribal elder. There is no medication involved. Salt is rubbed on the wound as the only antiseptic. The candidates then live in small huts, wearing loincloths, performing various rituals for three months. Mostly they try to heal.

"The first weeks are, above all, a mystical endurance test," author Ivor Powell explains in his book Ndebele: A People and Their Art. "If you die, if your penis gets infected, your blood was 'bad.' Such bad blood can result from floutings of taboo dating generations back, or it can be the consequence of personal sins against tradition.... Thus does the tribe explain the mortality rate among initiates which we would ascribe to the shockingly unhygienic conditions of the circumcision."

Thugwane survived. His blood apparently was good. He married a young woman named Zodwa, and soon they had Zandi, their first daughter. He built their house on stand number 7037 and built another shack next to it, from which he began to sell beer to neighbors for extra money. A township bar like this is called a shebeen. Thugwane owned a shebeen. This was important, because his job at the mines had been given to someone else. He was offered a job underground, but he rejected it because he feared the effect on his running of coal dust in his lungs. Running was now his major career.

He won a marathon in Pretoria in December 1993, finished 14th in a marathon in Korea in early 1994, won the Foot of Africa Marathon, in Bredasdorp, at the end of the year. The mine called him back, saying that he didn't have to work underground, that he could be a maintenance man cleaning the hostels where many of the workers lived. In 1995, four weeks after cold weather and dehydration forced him to drop out of the New York City Marathon after 18 miles, he raced in Honolulu and won.

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