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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"On August 16, 1991, I had taken nine runners to the South African cross-country championships," Malan says. "I was bringing them home, to Soweto, next to Johannesburg. The road that leads into the township has a curve and hits a T. Three men were standing there in the middle of the road. I didn't think anything of it. They turned around, and they had AK-47s. They started firing.

"My girlfriend was sitting next to me, in the front passenger seat. One bullet went through her shoulder. Another grazed her cheek. I threw her on the seat. The criminals made us get out of the car and said strange things, that we were police, agents or something. We said we were runners. They let us go. We started to run. Then they noticed that the immobilizer had gone on in the van. The van couldn't move. They said they were going to start firing. I turned around, walked back and gave them the keys. I didn't know what would happen. They just got in the van and drove it away. That was what they wanted."

The apartment in Albuquerque was a refuge from all of this, but the highlight of every day was a trip to neighbor John Bednarski's house to use the telephone. How were things back home? Was everybody safe? Each runner made his call. The other runners, waiting, played with Bednarski's six-month-old granddaughter, Sonia, and thought of their own children.

Thugwane was the loneliest. This was the longest time he had ever spent away from home. He was the one who wanted to put his bed on blocks, to keep the evil spirits on the ground and away from him, and was talked out of it. He was the one who arrived with shoulder-length hair, dreadlocks, and was talked into a haircut. He was the one who had a wicked toothache two weeks into camp and had three teeth extracted and received a T-shirt that said I HAD MY TEETH PULLED BY DR. TRAUB.

"I don't think he ever had been coached under a real program before," Malan says. "He kept saying, 'My legs don't hurt. We must not be doing enough work.' I kept telling him we were running 110,120 miles a week. That was more than enough."

The four runners were from different tribes. Thugwane was Ndebele. Peu was Pedi. Xolile Yawa was Xhosa. Gert Thys simply was "colored," the longtime South African legal term for those of mixed ancestry. The runners' favorite meal every night was phutu, a porridge that is something like grits. They had brought the grains for the phutu with them but found that each tribe likes the dish prepared a different way. They rotated in preparing the phutu.

Their lives were limited mostly to running, sleeping, eating and watching television. They slept 13 hours a day. They made one social excursion during the two months, a trip to the movies in a beat-up 1980 Chevy Impala. They saw The Nutty Professor. Thugwane laughed out loud again and again. He did not understand a word of the dialogue.

Sex was not an issue. They were "camping," their term for abstaining before a big race. This was the biggest race of all.

"We had to argue with our Olympic committee just to go to Albuquerque," Malan says. "This had never been done before with South African marathoners. It wasn't until the week before we were scheduled to leave that the Olympic committee freed up the funds. There were a lot of people who thought this was a waste of money."

"We told each other, all the time we were there, that someone must win a medal," Peu says. "It didn't matter who. We had to prove ourselves to our own Olympic committee."

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