Josia Thugwane - South Africa's second Olympic Marathon champion. Photo: Andrew Budd / Action Images
Josia Thugwane - South Africa's second Olympic Marathon champion. Photo: Andrew Budd / Action Images

Polar opposites McArthur and Thugwane united in Olympic history

By Stephen Granger Time of article published Sep 9, 2019

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CAPE TOWN – Ken McArthur and Josia Thugwane, polar opposites of the world’s cultural and physical divide, are forever united in a remarkable statistic of Olympic history - both earned Olympic marathon gold medals for South Africa.

And with less than a year to the Tokyo Games and team selection yet to be finalised, could Sunday’s Cape Town Marathon unearth SA’s third champion?

 McArthur, born in 1881 in County Atrim in Ireland before moving to Johannesburg at 20, was 1.88m tall and well-built, tipping the scales at a racing weight of 77kg. Thugwane, born of Ndebele heritage in the Mpumalanga farming town of Bethal in 1971, eleven years after McArthur died, was a mere 1.58m tall and was little more than half of McArthur’s weight at 45kg at his racing best.

McArthur took gold at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, while Thugwane raced to victory in the Atlanta Games in 1996. McArthur cut his running teeth competing against the local train in Ireland while working as a postman, before honing his athletic ability in the SA police force, while Thugwane found encouragement to develop his talent at the Koornfontein coal mine in the province of his birth.

The two SA athletes were largely unheralded as they lined up at the start of their respective Olympic marathons. Although McArthur arrived in Sweden unbeaten in three marathon races, the fact that these were all in SA, a far-off country, meant far less than the running CVs of the favoured Americans Clarence DeMar and Mike Ryan.

Thugwane’s successes had likewise been achieved largely in SA. His winning time at the Honolulu Marathon the previous year did not suggest the South African would pose a significant threat to the world’s best in Atlanta.

But both athletes used the hot and humid conditions to their advantage, proving stronger in the latter stages of their respective races when conditions were at their toughest, and both found themselves running with teammates at the front of the field of the Olympic event. McArthur, still the only British-born athlete to have won Olympic marathon gold, ran with teammate Chris Gitsham in the final quarter in Stockholm while a defining moment of the 1996 Games was that of Thugane, Laurence Peu and Gert Thys, fresh from a month’s focused altitude training in Alberqueque, forming a green and gold phalanx at the front of the field in Atlanta.

Marathon running was a less than exact science in McArthur’s days - he was believed to have feasted on chips for breakfast and enjoyed nothing more than smoking his pipe after training sessions and even after races. 

While his winning time in Stockholm or 2hrs 36min 54sec would these days be equalled or bettered by a reasonable club runner, it was nonetheless 15 minutes faster than the previous Olympic marathon best.


* This story has been selected as study material for the National High Schools Quiz final. For more stories click here.

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