The day and evening before the marathon were taken up with preparation and produced a healthy array of nervous energy.
Each of South Africa’s runners would have a different coloured (sprayed by the back up team) drinks bottle at the refreshment stations, filled with a favoured energy drink or plain water if preferred. Not surprisingly the colours chosen were one of the blue, red or green of the South African flag and allocated to Gert Thys, Josiah Thugwane and Lawrence Peu.
At the media briefing the afternoon before, the team manager was asked who of the team was most likely to medal. The answer was not readily embraced by members of the SA media corp. in particular, but it would prove profound the following day.
On the morning of the race the team members were supplied with anything they chose to eat or drink and were transported in buses to the start outside the Olympic Stadium where the world’s top marathoners would warm up.
Motivationally the three South African’s chose mainly to warm up together, showing a superb team spirit garnered in their long build up in Albuquerque, at the opening ceremony and in the final hours down in Atlanta.
From the gun the three South Africans were in focus and for the three-person management and back up team watching intently that was all important. They constituted three men who had very different paths to this moment, with different views on many aspects of the journey to-date. They sat side by side in the stadium watching proceedings on the big screen, chatting away nervously.
Before and through the half way three runners in the green and gold colours of South Africa led the strong international field as they ran shoulder to shoulder. It was a proud moment for all their countrymen and women back home.
At around the 30km mark Thugwane had started to make a move and looked full of confidence. At 32km, the mystical wall of marathon running, he broke more decisively from the leaders who included pre-race favourites Martin Fiz of Spain, and the Mexican, German Silva along with a handful of other top-class athletes. Thys and Peu had lost contact.
The pack must have thought Thugwane would fade and come back at them, but the 44kg South African was looking ever stronger. An archive view of the race will confirm how he was chased, but never tired.
Fiz in particular started looking menacing at 35km, but try as he might Thugwane maintained a healthy lead, contending instead with Korea’s Lee Bong Ju who had accompanied Thugwane when he broke away, testing the pace and Kenya’s Eric Wainana and who had more belatedly joined the front three.
The final kilometres were nail biting for all and although the Korean looked ever menacing and the famous finishing kick of most Kenyan’s were top of mind, Thugwane still looked the part and would have had his detractors scratching their heads in disbelief.
Thugwane entered the stadium a mere 2-3 metres ahead, Bong Ju who was still chasing hard, as was Wainana.
South Africans, those in Atlanta, in South Africa and indeed around the world were on their feet, bellowing at television screens and radios. It would be the closest Olympic Marathon finish in history and the winner was a 25-year-old man from Mpumalanga – the first black man from the southern tip of Africa to win an Olympic gold medal. It was huge; it was ground breaking and a story without parallel.
The media were beneath the stadium, where Thugwane would meet them for the first time as more than an equal. One of the South African contingent, who the day before could not believe Thugwane could feature let alone win, looked across at the team manager who had tipped him to medal and received only a smile in recognition.