The plan worked. All three came to the front after the crowded start. All three stayed in the lead group. All three helped. Their major worry in the field was Lee Bong-Ju of Korea. Lee made his move at 15½ miles, breaking out to a 20-yard lead. Thys went out to cover him. Peu followed. Lee dropped back, seeing that he could not escape. Thugwane joined his teammates. For a brief moment they were in the lead, one-two-three across the street in a line of green-and-gold uniforms. Three men who, until four years earlier, could not have competed for their country. Three black men from South Africa who, five years ago, all the way back in history, could not have competed anywhere but in local races that were not even known to the outside world. It was a picture. All three had grown up on the veld, then worked for mines.
"I dropped back first," says Peu, who finished 27th. "I lost contact. In the Olympics, when this happens, your spirit sort of disappears. The only prizes are for the first three. I kept running, and after a while I passed Thys [who finished 33rd]. He was tired. When I reached the stadium, I didn't know what had happened. Had I missed Josia? I didn't know if he had dropped out or what. I looked for South African flags in the stands, and then I started to see them. I started to think that something good had happened, but I did not know. When I got to the changing room, I still did not know. I saw Josia. There were people around him. 'Did you get a medal?' I asked. 'I got first,' he said."
He had made his move at the last water stop, about a mile from the finish, skipping the water and leaving Lee and Eric Wainaina of Kenya, the last two contenders, behind him. He controlled the race until the end, although Lee finished within three seconds of him for silver. Running the victory lap ever so slowly, wearing his sunglasses and a smile, Thugwane held aloft the new flag of his reborn country.
Celebrations took place at the mine, where Shift B had stopped for the race. Celebrations took place in the township, where Thugwane's family had watched the race on a television powered by the generator.
Not since Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin in 1936 had a more powerful racial statement been made on an Olympic track. Celebrations, parades and receptions in South Africa would continue for two weeks after Thugwane's return. Tribal dancers would gather around him and chant praise poems about his deed. Mandela would shake his hand.
"This is for my country," Thugwane said at the press conference in Atlanta after his victory. "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."
He bought a CD player that day to celebrate his great win. A CD player and 30 CDs.
BLINKPAN, SOUTH AFRICA
He lives now on a trim, paved street of middle-class homes located next to the Koornfontein Mines property. The house is owned by ESCOM, the power company, whose fat cooling towers for the coal plant nearby look as if they have been left behind by extraterrestrials. The neighborhood was all white—"traditionally white" is the euphemism used now—before the end of apartheid changed everything. It is mixed now.
The mine has rented the house for Thugwane and his family. Because of the death threats, he had pleaded with the Koornfontein executives to move his family while he was in Albuquerque, but nothing happened until he won the gold medal. His wife and children were moved the next day. Guards were stationed at the new house, around the clock, for a couple of weeks. There are no guards now. Thugwane is not happy with that. The mining company has promised to buy him a house, but no deal has been struck.