Durban - Willie Mtolo, the first black South African to win the New York Marathon, was “over the moon” when one of the runners he had been training won the Comrades on Sunday.
Mtolo – part of the SABC commentary team during the ultra marathon – had been training seven runners from several clubs at a camp in Underberg, where he has a farm.
He also has a running club, the Willie Mtolo Athletic Club, and predicted in an interview with the Daily News last week that all the hard work would pay off.
One of the runners, Bongmusa Mthembu, a member of the Nedbank KZN Club, took the top honours and winner’s prize.
We could not track Mtolo down Sunday night, but his former manager, Ray de Vries, who saw him after the win, said Mtolo was “over the moon”.
De Vries said Mthembu’s win marked a KZN and South African running renaissance.
Meanwhile, Mtolo’s inspirational story is going to be told on the big screen. The movie, to be shot in KZN next year, will also recount the unique relationship the legendary running star had with De Vries.
The title of the film is The Place that Hits the Sun, and De Vries said its description would be “the forbidden friendship”.
“Back in the early 1990s, it was unusual for a white guy to look after a black guy who was not allowed to run internationally,” said De Vries.
This was because, under apartheid, sportsmen and women were banned from competing globally.
But after Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the ban was lifted, Mtolo entered the 1992 New York Marathon, and beat the field of 35 000 to win, earning a place in the history books.
“Willie’s win was a breakthrough for South Africa and he inspired people internationally,” De Vries said.
“He opened the floodgates for others to follow his lead.
“After years of isolation, South African sportsmen and women did not know if they were good enough internationally.
“By winning the biggest show in town, Willie proved we could do it.”
Mtolo went on to win several other international marathons.
He did not win the Comrades, but came close, taking home two runners-up medals.
He and De Vries met when Mtolo was running for a local club and needed a place to stay.
De Vries owned the Hillcrest Hotel at the time and gave Mtolo a complimentary room for about two years.
“Not everyone approved. It was not done in those days. I even got death threats,” De Vries recalled.
He is now midway through writing a book about the encounter, to be called The Guest in Room 11a.
De Vries often stayed at Mtolo’s rural home in Underberg, learning Zulu and being given a Zulu name, Bafo (meaning brother).
Then he received a letter from an American scriptwriter, Joe Drape, who works for the New York Times, that there were moves to make a film about Mtolo and De Vries.
“The next thing, he sent me a script.”
Mtolo and De Vries will be advisers on the movie, which will be directed by Jim O’Hanlon and produced by Noel Pearson, whose My Left Foot won an Oscar.
The talk is that Barkhad Abdi, who starred with Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, is in the running to play Mtolo. De Vries is not sure who will portray him.
Mtolo said he was “excited” about the movie. De Vries there had been discussions with the KZN Film Commission at the Cannes film festival.