JOHANNESBURG – After a vigorous warm-up, Simon Magakwe makes his way to the 100-metre mark at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg.
The 31-year-old sprinter makes sure the laces on his bright blue running boots are tied perfectly before he takes up his starting position.
Magakwe is eager to shave something off the times he’s set in his previous runs this week. He knows it will take an impeccable effort to better these times. “Even if I better my time by 0.01 seconds, I’ll be thrilled,” says the Mahikeng-born runner, grinning.
His assistant coach, Ronny Lethlhake, stands on the side of the track with a whistle in his mouth and a timer in his hand, ready to count Magakwe down.
When the whistle sounds, Magakwe lifts his head up and bolts. As he passes the finish line, Lethlhake shouts “10.21” loudly and waves his hands in the air. The two look happy, and embrace one another at the finish line. It seems Magakwe has improved his time from his previous runs.
“Any sort of progress is good progress,” Magakwe says, trying to catch his breath.
His improved time may not be as good as his 9.98-second record sprint in 2014, but Magakwe and his assistant are delighted. Magakwe has spent the last two years of his life away from the track after receiving a two-year ban for missing an out-of-competition drugs test.
Before he was banned, the athlete was South Africa’s fastest man, having broken the 100m record with a time of 9.98 at the University of Pretoria.
Since then, four other South African athletes have surpassed his record, with Wayde van Niekerk the latest to run a sub-10-second time in the 100m sprint. “I watched Wayde’s run this week and I was blown away by how impressive he was,” says Magakwe.
“I’m very happy that several South Africans have managed to run the 100m in under 10 seconds. Seeing all these athletes surpass my record has motivated me to push harder so that I can get back to my best.”
Magakwe went through a “roller-coaster of emotions” during his ban, admitting he was ready to hang up his running boots and call it quits.
“My life had fallen apart. I became an alcoholic, and I was drinking every day to numb the pain I was going through. I would spend my days lazing on the couch, getting drunk, going out to nightclubs and doing silly things.”
Magakwe, who still insists he never missed a doping test, and was ‘sabotaged’ by the drug board appointed to conduct his dope test in December 2014, says his life spiralled out of control after his mother’s death in August last year.
“I was ready to die and be with my mother,” says a tearful Magakwe. “My career had ended, I didn’t have any family left. I was living life very dangerously.”
He lost his home, all his possessions and all his money. These days he lives at a friend’s place because he can’t afford a place of his own.
“I tried so hard to keep myself together, but it was very tough because when I think about what I lost, it was really hard. I mean, I was on the verge of becoming a millionaire. My life was going well. I was on the cusp of signing a few sponsorship deals, and in a flash, everything changed.”
Before his mother died, she told him to return to the track. Later, he started reading the Bible and going to church. “Finding God has given me the strength to return.”
The three-time African champion and eight-time SA champion says while his life was ruined by the two-year ban he “shouldn’t have received”, he doesn’t hold grudges against the drug board. “I made peace with it,” says Magakwe.
“I hated them at first, but then realised I needed to forgive them because there’s nothing I could do to change my circumstances. I still have the belief I’m the best sprinter in the country, and it’s up to me now to show the world what I’m made of.”
While Magakwe has his eye on competing at the Commonwealth Games next year and making his debut at the Olympic Games in 2020, his immediate focus is to get into shape for the European season, which kicks off early next month.
However, Magakwe requires R40 000 to compete in Europe – money which the sprinter doesn’t have. “I lost everything in these last two years, and I’m hoping someone can come forward to help me.”
He remains convinced he can reclaim the title of South Africa’s fastest man. “I know I can better my time. I want to do that before the end of this year. God has given me this special talent, and it would be a shame if I never fulfilled my potential.”