Josiah Thugwane. To the discerning South African sports fan, this name conjures up glorious memories of a feat so magnificent it should forever be celebrated.
I for one remember it vividly, Thugwane – resplendent in sports sunglasses and that garishly colourful South African gear – running into the packed stadium in Atlanta pointing skywards as glory beckoned, the fact that that Korean ... was hot on his heels clearly not bothering him.
South Africa winning the closing event – the marathon – of the 1996 Olympics remains one of the greatest sporting feats by the country. And you would assume the man responsible will be afforded hero status for life.
Yet most of those who are in the sport that Thugwane made Mzansi famous for have no clue who the man is.
This much was revealed by a tearful Hein Koch, Forever Resorts Loskop Marathon Race Director on the eve of yesterday’s 33rd running of the race.
Thugwane, a holder of the pretty fast 2:44:03 record of the 50km ultra is such an integral part of the race that they use him to award green numbers to those who earn them (for completing the race 10 times).
But Koch has been so pained by the recipients’ nonchalance that he felt he had to do something to make them aware they are in the presence of greatness.
“What Josiah has achieved is incredible. And every year we have him give the green numbers to the athletes. But they just take them and walk away -clearly they have no idea who the man giving it to them is. That breaks my heart,” he said as he literally broke down and cried.
Koch then gave Thugwane a cap on which he did not only emblazon his name but the fact that he is an Olympic gold medallist as well as the Loskop Marathon record holder.
“Josiah you are special. I hope this will give the recognition that you deserve.”
A simple yet profound gesture that an appreciative Thugwane accepted with a smile.
Tomorrow, Thugwane turns 48 and while he will be grateful to the creator for blessing him with yet another year, the man who has won a couple of international marathons is pained by the state of road running in the country.
And with good reason too given that South Africa has struggled to replicate his feat.
He realises though that the problem is not a lack of talent but rather the fact that the budding talent is not given the necessary support it needs to blossom.
“In my time, the mines really helped us. They gave us jobs and even paid for our transport to training and races. But now those with money would rather sponsor team sports like soccer or cricket and rugby.”
Such is his passion for road running that upon retirement Thugwane spent his own money to try and develop local runners.
“I tried to help and I even bought a 22-seater bus that I used to transport kids from around the area so they can come for training and go to races. But I just did not have enough money to maintain it. Our government long promised to do something for sport but they are not doing it.”
For someone of his achievements, Thugwane should not only be celebrated but he should be allowed to multiply - if only through sharing his knowledge and experience with young athletes.
But then again this is South Africa where you matter only when you are still active and shining. Thereafter, no one really cares as Thugwane and many other local sports stars have come to realise.
Those of us inspired by that great run of his back in 1996 will raise a glass to the superstar that is Josiah Thugwane tomorrow as we wish a national hero happy birthday.@Tshiliboy