Athletics: Fear and running in South Africa

Mike Rowbottom on a perilous path for two men in the London Marathon
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The Independent Online
Having signed up Josiah Thugwane, the Olympic champion, for this year's London Marathon, the event organisers took the opportunity to show him round the capital yesterday.

First, he had a run on Hampstead Heath; then a press appearance at South Africa House; and finally a dental appointment to sort out the teeth which were brutally rearranged in a road rage incident near Johannesburg 12 days ago.

The diminutive 25-year-old, who earned a place in history as the first black South African to win Olympic gold, is pursuing his running career in terrifying circumstances.

After his surprise victory in Atlanta last August, he explained that the noticeable scar on his chin was from a bullet wound suffered five months earlier, when he had had a gun pulled on him after giving a lift to two men in a truck used to transport supplies to the township bar he runs.

The bullet shattered the windscreen after glancing his face, and Thugwane subsequently jumped from the moving vehicle, sustaining back injuries which affected his Olympic preparations.

He ran in Atlanta despite death threats against his family (he has a wife and four daughters). The day after his victory, the coal-mining company for whom Thugwane still works as a cleaner helped him relocate from the corrugated iron shack he had built himself in the township of Mzinoni, to the middle-class Johannesburg suburb of Middelburg.

However, it was while he was returning there after a training session on January that he says he was forced off the road by three men in a car, beaten and shot at. "When I tried to run away the people in the car followed me," he says. "One of them shot at me. He wanted to injure my legs."

The 5ft 2in and seven stone runner was only saved when another car appeared and his assailants fled. He now trains 85 kilometres away from his home. "This is where I can focus my mind," he said. "Of course it is sad. But there is nothing I can do. This is my country."

Thugwane, who earned $50,000 (pounds 32,000) from appearing in the Fukuoaka marathon in December and will get around twice that to run in London, is determined not to be demoralised. "I will run until I cannot run anymore. It is not only in South Africa that you can find such problems, you can meet them all over the world. If that's what I have to face, I will face it."

Thugwane's training partner, Lawrence Peu, who will also run in London on 13 April, pleaded yesterday for the South African athletics federation to help secure the safety of Thugwane and other runners achieving commercial success in South Africa.

"The mechanics have to be there to protect this guy," Peu said. "The nation needs him. If he has to hide himself, we are never going to get happiness.

"We cannot carry on like this, otherwise it is demoralising for the young of South Africa. They are going to be scared. They will think: `what's the use? You are going to perform but you will get killed'."

Peu, who sets off with Thugwane today for a training break in Colorado Springs, had his own brush with death recently. Last summer, after failing to get one of the three South African places in the Olympic marathon following training in the US, he made plans to race instead in Paris. He was booked on the TWA flight 800 which subsequently exploded over Long Island; but Peu was not aboard. He had cancelled his ticket after a last-minute change of heart in order to return home.

After watching reports of the disaster on television, Peu - who subsequently finished 27th in the Olympic marathon after being called up as a reserve - knelt down and prayed. "I had to accept it," he said. "It was in the hands of God."

Do not expect any bleating from these two men if things do not go to plan in London. They will both know they are lucky to be there.