First Article: The build up and team selection.
Many thousands of South Africans, wherever they might be in the world, may recall exactly where they were the day Josia Thugwane won the men’s marathon gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. The first black South African to win Olympic gold.
That was 24 years ago and, now retired from competitive running, Thugwane is but 49 years old. Takkie Talk chatted to him at the start of the South African Covid 19 “lockdown” and he assures followers that he remains in good health.
The journey to Atlanta was a fairly lengthy one with the South African Road Running Commission liaising with ASA who, in turn, were in constant contact with SASCOC. More will be revealed in follow up articles.
Marathon runners form and results at international city marathons were studied closely over a period of time, while the same applied to local races, more specifically the South African Marathon Championships in February 1996, which would be the final chance to impress and would be the day of the team announcement.
Numerous versions of exactly how it all worked have been circulated in the media these past 24 years, but few have been entirely accurate. It all started with the road running selectors drawing up a short list of contenders many months before crunch date.
Included on the list were Xolile Yawa, Gert Thys, Josia Thugwane, Lawrence Peu and a few others.
Thys was a shoe in, having run a 2:08:30 marathon in Japan in early 1996, while one of the county’s favourites over the marathon distance was Yawa who had won The London City Marathon in a time of 2:10:22.
Josia Thugwane was on the list, though most in the media, or indeed the sport in general had no knowledge of it and were not punting his name at all. Thugwane had won the Honolulu Marathon in Hawaii in late 1995 and it was run in extreme heat and high humidity. The winning time of 2:16:08 did not qualify him for the Olympics, but the selection panel agreed with the chairman that given the conditions being predicted for Atlanta, that was exactly the type of performance to take note of.
He had also finished 5th at the World Half Marathon Championships two months earlier in France with a time of 62:28, which the selectors equated to a 2:10 marathon.
Thugwane would still need to qualify, however, and his outstanding coach, not always adequately acknowledged in the media, Bobby McGee, decided that the local race should be the choice.
It took place on an extremely windy Cape Town morning, which blew away the hopes of numerous competitors. Not so the diminutive, soon to be 25 year old Thugwane weighing in at just 44kg. He fought the wind, beat the field and posted a 2:12 qualifier.
One hurdle lay in his way and that was in the form of a 2:11 Paris Marathon returned by Lawrence Peu. Peu was a speedy athlete and had won the 1991 SA Half Marathon in East London in 60:58.
The selectors were in a corner, but felt a horses for courses policy should be implemented. Not everyone, in fact few, agreed. Even the senior ASA officials were divided with one pleading for recognition of the South African Championships and another for a globally-fancied system of fastest first.
It was that difference of opinion that saw the call of the road running selectors win the argument.
The team would be Yawa, Thys, Thugwane with Peu as a travelling reserve.
There was much argument in the media and amongst very senior folk in the sport. Reputations could possibly be in tatters come the Olympic Marathon scheduled six months later.
There were a few unexpected twists along the way to glory in Atlanta.