Josia Thugwane overcame a cruel birthright of illiteracy, apartheid and the world's greatest distance runners nearly 20 years ago. But he couldn't overcome the neglect of a country that needs his inspiration now.
Mike Wise Special reporting by Michael Mandt
Photography by Andrew Cutraro
RONKHORSTSPRUIT, Gauteng Province, South Africa -- The picture in an aging, tan-brick farmhouse at the end of a long, dusty road on the savannah distills the essence of a national hero. In it, the man raises his arms, toward the heavens, his index finger and thumb appearing to make the victory sign. It is 1996. He is standing in the middle of several thousand black children in Coca-Cola T-shirts and ball caps, some with their mouths agape cheering, others looking stoically into the lens.
Nineteen years later, Josia Thugwane looks at the photo, competing for space on his living room wall with a mural of himself and Nelson Mandela. He still doesn't know whether he affected lives that day.
The Coke endorsement deal ended more than a decade ago. No one from the athletic federation has called to ask the famous Olympian to speak to kids, make an appearance or mentor a promising runner in years, much less attend any upcoming 20th-anniversary function.
Instead, like many days with family, he will help Zodwa, his wife of almost 20 years, serve plates of white rice, lightly fried chicken and thick, brown gravy. Then he will channel-surf among the news, South African soap operas and soccer. Before dusk, he will tend the cows.
Thugwane (pronounced Too-gwan-ee) is now the embodiment of what Robert Frost once said: "In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: It goes on."
If a man is a national hero but his own country doesn't remember him, is he really a national hero? Did his life mean more than one touch-the-gods moment?
Thugwane "reinforced our pride and confidence as a nation," Mandela said then. Almost 20 years later, he sits quietly in the living room of his single-story rambler on a 75-acre plot of land in the Gauteng province, uncertain of what constitutes a memorable life.
DO YOU STILL RUN?
"Marathons?" Josia asks. "No, no, no. Soon, I may train for 10K."
Can you run now?
Josia suddenly jumps up and walks purposefully down the hall, into his bedroom. He reaches into his top closet shelf for a folded sweatsuit, his country's green, gold, black and red colors emblazoned across the chest. Underneath the five interlocking rings, in black embroidery, it reads:
"South Africa Olympic Team Atlanta 1996."
One of the last remnants from his past, the warm-ups he wore on the last night of the Centennial Games, fit snugly on his small frame. Slightly frayed, much tighter now, they still feel good, comfortable, like the country he knew when.
Before the on-camera interview begins and the videographers begin rolling, he wants to know why the reporter came to his home, 19 years later.
He is told about the American production company that developed "Million Dollar Arm," Mandt Bros. Productions, and its interest in turning his story into a feature film. Why, the reporter wonders, do foreign filmmakers and producers see something in him that South Africans stopped seeing? Why has his story yet to be properly told?
Josia likes these questions, so much so he asks to be prompted for the video portion of the interview, to repeat what was said in jest earlier. He breathes deeply, sits up straight.
Can you repeat your name and who you are into the camera?
The face tightens, enough so you can see a faint scar between his lip and chin.
"My name is Josia Thugwane. I am the greatest story no one ever told."
A life-changing run
Josia Thugwane grew up with nothing in apartheid South Africa. But when he won the marathon at the 1996 Olympic Games, Thugwane became the first black South African to win an individual gold medal -- and he altered the course of his family's lives.
"IT'S A CRIME South Africa forgot about him, a f---ing crime!"
Grant the Driver grows more furious by the minute. He's spent almost four hours at the Olympian's farmhouse, a good hour east of Johannesburg, eavesdropping on every word of the interview. Now, he seethes.
A bald, white Afrikaner man in Ah-nold black shades who keeps his Glock in the drink holder next to the steering wheel as he drives, tells white-guy-to-white guy, racially loaded jokes until his customer tells him to stop. This big, fidgety white man suddenly feels protective of the little black man with the big finishing kick, unspooling his life.
"It's not fair. Josia is a goddamn hero. He can't just live out here and no one know what happened."
Job Mahlangu, Josia's first mentor, the man who discovered him running in black shoes without rubber soles 27 years ago, stares vacantly toward the Koornfontein Mines in Mpumalanga, where they first met. "After the Olympics, everybody is talking with Josia. But now they don't talk about him anymore."
Ian Laxton, one of two South African television broadcasters at the track-and-field events in Atlanta 19 years ago and the country's distance-running historian, says: "If you went out and asked 1,000 people 'Who is Josia Thugwane?' just in the streets, probably 2 percent would know who he is, maybe 5-10 percent at best."
It makes no sense.
"Here's this black guy from apartheid South Africa," Laxton continues. "Discriminated against. Got nothing. No education, nothing. Here he arrives in the Deep South in America, the birthplace of Martin Luther King, where America had its own racial history, and here he comes breaking barriers all over the place. A perfect storm in all sorts of levels was happening there."
Josia can't hear them. He's still in the kitchen, helping Zodwa.
"I think everybody get story," he says later to a visiting journalist in his halting English rasp, too proud to acknowledge he has faded into memory. "Even you have your story."
Today is Freedom Day, April 27 -- 21 years to the afternoon of the country's first all-race elections, when hope and Mandela finally won, beating back oppression, inequality. Symbolic, almost fateful, no?
"Sometimes they do the celebration in the town, but as for me and my family we don't do anything today," he says. "Freedom Day is not important everywhere."
"Did you vote in '94?" he is asked.
"Yes, I vote. But that was long ago."
Almost forever now.
MANDELA DIED Dec. 5, 2013. His dream of multinational, multiracial harmony is not far behind. Xenophobic attacks took seven lives nearly four months ago, the violence touching the country and the cities. A new round of racism -- four white teenagers allegedly raping a black classmate with a broom handle this past February, reports of a "whites-only" business office toilet in the Limpopo province last November -- is peeling off old Afrikaner scabs. Meantime, the economy stagnates, weighed down by a rising unemployment rate of almost 25 percent. Next to the American dollar, the rand is nearly a third as valuable today as it was in 1996.
Amid this South Africa, Josia walks into his living room near his childhood home in the neighboring province. Past the framed Josia Thugwane Day proclamation from home:
"The Citizens of Mpumalanga Province, realising the apartheid hurdles you had to overcome -- lack of training/facilities, lack of professional coaching, complete non-existence of financial and other support systems -- pride themselves for having born a hero."
A badly acted South African drama blares through the television. This is better than the news because Josia knows if he turns to the channel he has to watch, playing on a loop, the deaths of foreigners at the hands of South African nationals will be shown.
"To claim these people come to South Africa to take the job and that's why you kill them? I don't understand," Josia says, shaking his head.
Like the promise of his one moment in time, like the change it might bring ... Gone. The broken country he helped heal feels broken again.
Born into apartheid, unable to read or write, Josia Thugwane also overcame being shot in the face during a carjacking five months before the 1996 Atlanta Games. Duif du Tois/Getty Images
SOON AFTER Josia Thugwane was born, his father left his mother for another woman, who didn't want a son who wasn't hers. Before he was 2 years old, his mother had left Josia for a man who didn't want a son who wasn't his.
He grew up with his maternal grandmother and his uncle, who sent his own children to school but refused to send Josia. He pleaded with his uncle only to be told that someone must tend the cattle while his children were at school.
He dreamed of being a famous soccer player like the late John "Shoes" Moshoeu of the national team. But Josia's dreams were beaten out of him by his uncle's belt -- sometimes until he bled. "After so many times, you don't feel nothing," he recalls.
When the violence, manual labor and lack of formal schooling continued from early childhood into adolescence, Josia told his grandmother he could not stay any longer.
He can't remember running far before he was 14. He had no daily regimen to build his stamina, just the innate desire to escape his uncle's rule. It carried him about 21 miles in the middle of the night on foot to the town of Kriel. He barely stopped running, thinking the headlights of his uncle's truck were seconds from illuminating his stride through the dark.
One other thought crept into his head, and it was so powerful he repeated it in his native Zulu, over and over:
"Uma ufuna ukuba uphumelele, khohlwa konke." ("If you want to succeed, forget everything.")
He found work in Kriel gardening for an older woman, who gave him room and board. But for many of his formative years, Josia had no purpose beyond earning enough to survive on his own, and somehow, someday marry and have a family.
Bored one afternoon, he sat on a gate on the side of the road as a group of men came running past in military formation. It was the spring of 1988, and Josia's first godsend -- a lithe black man, with élan and purpose in his gait -- had just flown past in colorful running shoes.
"THOSE WHO ARE ready to join hands can overcome the greatest challenges." -- Mandela, on friendship.
In casual black shoes, a formal white shirt and long, gray trousers, 17-year-old Josia Thugwane jumped off that gate and joined the group of fleet men in stride. Job Mahlangu thought the "boy was playing" with his running team -- until he sped to the front, staying there for nine miles until he tired and laid down in the grass as the men passed, shaking their heads at the kid's audacity.
The next day Josia summoned the courage to ask Job if he could join his team, which the local mining company sponsored. But he had no running shoes and none of the other runners wanted to let him borrow a pair for fear he would steal them. Finally, after Josia's bare feet blistered badly during several long training runs, Job promised one of his runners he would pay for the shoes if Josia took off with them.
It was the first of many times Job would vouch for Josia, a young man he barely knew but wholly believed in.
When Josia kept up with Job's fastest men -- all between 20 and 35 -- during an 8K time trial, the mentor knew he might have a prodigy on his hands. Within weeks, he asked his foreman to give the kid a job.
For most of the 1980s and 1990s, many of South Africa's largest mining companies turned out some of the country's best young athletes. Run by multinational conglomerates with money to burn, they sponsored everything from soccer and track to boxing and karate.
White Afrikaner male coaches, posted throughout the country at different mines, began running teams by recruiting young black distance runners. They offered them room and board and menial-paying jobs above ground, away from the soot and the coal that could ruin their lungs. In return, the best runners brought their mines local prestige. They became feeder programs much like American colleges, sans tuition for education. Koornfontein Mines LTD., which harvested coal and energy, gave Job such a job in 1981. Within two years, he had become Koornfontein's coach, driver, treasurer, untrained physician and recruiter.
Job wanted just three things for Josia as he helped prepare and train him: a job with the mine, regional fame and not to burn himself out by competing in too many marathons too young. Job thought if Josia was routinely beaten by more experienced men at the 26.2-mile distance as a teen, "He will stop believing he can win."
You say you're not educated, but your feet are.
- Nelson Mandela to Josia Thugwane after the 1996 Olympics
But Josia kept pushing Job to let him run this thing called a marathon.
A month before the annual Sun City marathon in 1989, Job told Josia he was still too young but could make the trip with the other entrants from the mine. When they arrived, Josia pleaded for an entry bib. Job finally told him he could run, but to stop if he got tired, that he didn't need to finish. Josia thought this advice odd.
See, Josia somehow had no concept of the race's distance. He thought it might be a fancy word for a 10K race or, at worst, the distance of a half-marathon, 21 kilometers (13.1 miles).
"I start running -- run, run, run, run," he remembers. "I feel a little bit tired. I was like, 'Why is this race not finished now?'"
Imagine running a marathon, without knowing how long it is or when you will finish. Every runner in every race has mental checkpoints along the way to help understand how long the pain will last. Josia had no such knowledge, only his stubborn will to keep going.
After the halfway point, he kept going. And going, finishing in just over 2 hours and 23 minutes, in fifth place.
He won 900 rand (about $300 in 1989). He bought his first pair of new running shoes, Nike Vendettas. Three hundred rand went to the store manager, as partial payment for the shoes. The rest went to his extended family of 10 in Bethal.
Within a week, Job told him that his employers had seen Josia's name in the newspaper and that they were now ready to give him a job.
Job then drove him to the government office and walked him through the process of procuring identification, of which he had none. Soon after, Josia was sweeping and mopping floors, cleaning rooms -- a 18-year-old janitor at the mine hostel.
Job told Josia that he could help with his training but that staying employed was his own responsibility. The one piece of advice Josia remembered: "Don't run away."
For the first time in his life, Josia had structure surrounding his needs, not others'. He began running three times a day, per Job's training program. Five days per week, more than 22 miles per day. Job started him with almost 10 miles at 8 a.m., 5 miles at noon and 7.5 miles at 5 p.m.
He made Josia slow down and think when he ran, too, insisting he use just one of his daily runs as a speed workout.
Job also encouraged Josia to supplement his pittance of a weekly salary from the mines, 475 rand (about $160), by running half-marathons and 10Ks offering prize money on the weekends.
The year before Atlanta, Job pulled into his driveway late at night during a thunderstorm. He saw what looked like a crumpled garbage bag in front of the headlights, underneath the roof. When the headlights hit the plastic, the bag suddenly moved.
Cold and wet, Josia had huddled himself in the carport. Job invited him in, made him coffee and told him he could stay if he explained why he dropped by unannounced.
He wanted Job to drive him to a half-marathon offering 500 rand in prize money, about $140, 100 miles away just outside the Swaziland border." Oh, and he needed money for the entrance fee.
With barely a quarter tank of gas in his car and with no money to purchase more, Job looked at his wife. For Josia's sake, she nodded to her husband that he should chance it. He never told Josia of his predicament. To conserve gas, Job switched off the ignition and put the car in neutral every descent down a hill.
Job ran from the back of the pack, trying to catch a glimpse of Josia's progress. No luck. The course was covered by pines and tree ferns. After he finished well behind the leaders, Job waited for Josia by the car.
"Ah, let's go," Job said a good half-hour later, when Josia finally showed.
Josia: "Let's go where? I am waiting for my money."
Job: "Did you win?"
Josia: "Don't ask me 'Did I win?' Say, 'How much money are you going to get?'"
Five hundred rand richer, more than his salary, Josia embraced Job.
"We get the petrol, we get the food, we make it home, we are so happy," Job recalled.
There was more. On the way home, Josia told Job how he won.
Two runners remained in contention to win after the 9-mile mark -- Josia and a man of equal caliber a few steps behind, copying his every move. When Josia drank water, he drank. When he ate a banana at another stop, the man ate a banana.
After studying his pursuer carefully, Josia took two small chocolate energy bars offered at the last stop with a little more than a mile left. He pretended to consume one. Then, when he looked back to see the man had gobbled one of the bars and had trouble digesting it as he ran -- as Josia knew he would -- Josia took off, demoralizing his competitor.
Job realized Josia had not only great talent but also the ruthless cunning of a potential champion.
Bonding in Albuquerque during their pre-Olympic training camp, Josia (far right) and his South African marathon teammates prepare to make history. Courtesy Annalize Malan
AT 21, Josia just missed qualifying for the 1992 Barcelona Games, South Africa's return to the Olympic stage after more than two decades of apartheid-fueled exile.
As with the length of a marathon, he still didn't fully comprehend the Olympics' magnitude. To him, it was Sun City with more prize money. "But in my mind I understand just one thing: to go there to represent Mandela," he says.
He won the national marathon championship in 1993 in Cape Town and the Honolulu Marathon two years later. But the next year Josia still had just the fifth-best time of his countrymen and was faced with one last chance to avoid being an alternate on the Olympic team: run the national marathon in February 1996 in a time of 2 hours, 9 minutes or better.
For the first 22 miles, he stayed among the lead pack, worried about making his move too soon. The three qualifiers with better times were in that pack when Josia broke away, refusing to give up the lead the final four miles. He won, but had a sinking feeling as he crossed the finish line and saw his time of more than 2 hours, 11 minutes.
"I feel I fail for the second time to be in the Olympics and run for Mandela," he says.
About a week later, the race's sponsors, in concert with the athletic federation, decided the current national champion should be a part of the Olympic team even if his time wasn't as fast as the third and final qualifier had previously run.
Job picked up a local newspaper, reading a story about his friend "Josia," he said, "you are going to Atlanta. See, I tell you; your dream lives."
Unable to read or write in English or his native Zulu, unaware Mandela had been elected until the morning after the election in 1994, he wasn't even sure what the end of apartheid meant.
All he knew was: "The white people have money. The black people are to work [for] the white people. I don't know whether this is wrong thing."
But he knew, from 1964 until 1992, South Africa hadn't participated in the Olympics. He knew Mandela enabled him to finally run against the world. He knew, after years of deprivation and managing so much pain, he finally deserved happiness.
They began with Muhammad Ali courageously lighting the torch and ended with the resolve of a man destined to become South Africa's first black Olympic gold medalist. Barry Chin/The Boston Globe/Getty Images
IN ACCORDANCE WITH Ndebele tradition, he still owed Zodwa's parents a bridal fee in 1996 -- 1,000 rand and eight cows. Driving between Kriel and Bethal five months before the Olympics and just two weeks after he won the national marathon, he rolled down the window of his used white Mazda pickup and asked three men standing by the side of the road whether they knew where the cattle farmer he was looking for lived.
The three men nodded. Picking up hitchhikers is nothing uncommon in rural areas of black South Africa, especially ones who double as guides.
But Josia thought something felt off when two jumped into his truck and the other followed behind in a Nissan Sentra. He accelerated when the Nissan drew closer. The hitchhikers asked him to slow down and pull over.
When he asked the man in the front seat why he wanted him to pull over in the middle of nowhere, the man showed him a silver-plated revolver. Panicked, he floored it, first swerving right and then left. And then the gun went off. He says he felt nothing, but saw blood.
Before the bullet went through the windshield, it had passed through Josia's face, between his lip and chin -- a 1-inch, disfiguring gash. The truck was still moving when he undid his seat belt, grabbed the door handle and jumped.
His shirt soaked with his own blood, the right side of his back shooting pain, he tried to flag down a car on the road, but, once the driver saw his bloodied face, he sped off, frightened. Josia finally made his way to the Bethal police station.
They took a report, brought him to the hospital to have his face stitched up and found his truck out of gas in Kriel. No one was ever arrested for the crime.
He was all but broken, the culmination of so much good in his world gone in a gunshot. "My dream [of going] to the Olympics is gone now," he thought.
When the shock of the carjacking subsided, Josia's real impediment to competing in Atlanta was a bulging disk in his lower right back. His right side throbbed as he first tried to run a 5K, barely more than 3 miles.
But Josia received unexpected help in his rehab. Like the three other South African marathoners who had come from the mine leagues, he had already built up a reservoir of goodwill with his employer.
Koornfontein covered all his medical costs, including a grueling, seven-day-a-week physical therapy program that represented his only hope of getting his body right so he could join his teammates in Albuquerque for South Africa's first marathon training camp before an Olympics.
Two months later, he pushed himself, running more than 10 miles for the first time since before the carjacking. No pain. Fifteen miles. No pain. Twenty miles. No pain. He hadn't dodged a bullet; he'd caught one, leaving a protruding scar that looked like a child's glop of finger paint. It still couldn't stop him.
Josia Thugwane booked a flight to America, to the mountains of New Mexico. By then, his talent had been transferred from the care of Job at the mines to the hands of Jacques Malan, the first white man he truly trusted.
Josia (left, No. 2122) stayed with the lead pack throughout. Soon, teammates Lawrence Peu (right) and Gert Thys -- black men who also were finally granted voting rights just two years prior -- would surge to the front with him. AP Photo/Roberto Borea
THE SON OF a town cop in KwaZulu-Natal, Jacques Malan learned fluent Zulu as a child, befriending the black children who weren't allowed to go to school with him. At ease with anyone of any color, Jacques embellished everything. He even told his four runners -- Josia, Gert Thys, Lawrence Peu and Xolile Yawa -- that he could cook the cornmeal mush they all grew up on as children just like their tribal families back home if they let him.
"No, Jacques, it doesn't taste the same -- I must cook the pap [mush]," Josia said, cackling in the three-bedroom apartment on Eubank Avenue in Albuquerque he shared with Malan and the other runners, just two months before the Centennial Games.
Jacques and Josia had met two years earlier at a race in which one of the runners Jacques managed was competing. Josia recalled the personal attention and kindness Jacques had shown his competitor, how, beyond their shared success, a white man seemed to be so concerned about a black man's welfare.
Although he loved to run, Jacques was never an athlete. He worked for a bank and coached and managed part time, conniving his full-time employers out of as many days off as he could to work with the country's elite distance runners. He was never a paid South African federation coach, nor did he ever work in any official capacity. But Jacques played the game well, securing funding, sequestering, pampering and feeding his best runners.
Jacques was also prescient. He keenly understood after the release of Mandela from prison in 1990 that change would come quickly, so he took time to forge relationships with elite black athletes when most white coaches in South Africa had yet to seriously pay them any mind.
Not three weeks had gone by during the bonding trip to Albuquerque when the four black marathoners had realized the same thing: They had never met anyone like Jacques, someone who cared for more than coached them. Their success was tied to his validation in the eyes of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, but it was more than that.
If a runner's brother had no food in the Limpopo province or an athlete he was coaching and managing had a mother who needed a ride to the hospital in Bethal, Jacques solved the problem.
He laundered their clothes, listened to their life stories late into the New Mexico night, played chaperone if they wanted to go to the theater in town and fall over laughing at "The Nutty Professor," even if three of the four could not understand a word.
Jacques talked Sam Ramsamy, the chairman of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee, into allotting almost $200,000 to fly the marathoners to Albuquerque and fund them for two months before the Games -- an unheard-of request for a group no one -- except Jacques and the runners themselves -- expected to bring home a medal.
Josia Thugwane was in a way the last great runner from this country.
- Ian Laxton
"I have a few issues," Jacques said to Ramsamy, calling from Albuquerque two weeks into the trip. "The funding you gave us is adequate, but I need your authority on several things. Point one is the pap. The lads want their pap."
The same crushed, fine cornmeal, the staple of the African tribal diet, could not be found in Albuquerque. So Ramsamy express-mailed two monstrous bags of the cornmeal and OK'd two long-distance calls home per week.
Josia was the outlier among the four. Because he won the national title, with a time slower than the other three runners, he had bumped Peu from competing. Jacque thought Thys and Yawa were his best hopes initially, especially after Josia had three teeth extracted a week after he arrived in Albuquerque.
But they were all in tremendous shape, running up to 120 miles per week at 5,000-foot elevation. Peu had decided if he wasn't going to run in Atlanta, he would run a half marathon in France on his way home to South Africa. He even had a flight booked for him through New York before deciding at the last minute to stay. TWA Flight 800 to Rome, with a stopover in Paris, crashed into the Atlantic off Long Island 12 minutes after takeoff, killing everyone aboard. Peu walked outside the apartment upon learning the news, circling for several minutes before quietly saying "Praise God" he wasn't on that flight.
Yawa then came down with stress fracture in his left leg, enabling Peu to run in Atlanta.
Josia, meanwhile, felt on a never-ending endorphin kick since rehabbing his back and improbably making it to Albuquerque. When the South Africans would train with other teams who had come to New Mexico for the training-at-altitude benefits, he, Thys, Yawa and Peu would invariably end up running to the front, leaving the Russians, Germans and British behind in the foothills outside the city.
Josia felt so good, he was worried. So he called Job, back home at the mine, two weeks before race day in Atlanta. "Now I've got a serious problem," he said. "I am running, but I don't feel nothing on my legs, even my body I feel nothing."
Job told Josia that he understood the problem and could diagnose it but that he would talk to him in a week. Puzzled, Josia asked why Job couldn't tell him in the moment. "I call you in a week, OK, Josia?"
A week later, Job called. "You say your body is tired and you feel nothing on the legs?"
"You know what, you are not fit," Job said.
Josia boiled over in a flash of anger. But Job interrupted. "No, keep quiet. I just want to tell you something. You are not fit. You are super-fit!"
"What do you mean?" Josia asked.
"Josia, I want to tell you one thing now: if you want to win this race, you are going to win it."
Throughout their relationship, Job had provided for and protected Josia. From running shoes to employment, from talking him out of running marathons too young to now waiting a week to tell Josia what great shape he was in because Job believed Josia would become overconfident, dial back his training and lose his mental edge.
But he knew Josia was ready for Atlanta, even if the rest of the world had never heard of him.
To win gold, Josia would have to overcome the experience of South Korea's Lee Bong-ju and the stamina of Kenya's Eric Wainaina in the final mile. AP Photo
IF YOU CAN'T FLY, run; if you can't run, walk ... if you can't walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.
The opening ceremonies in Atlanta enraptured Josia. He saw Muhammad Ali tremble before courageously lighting the torch. He then returned to Albuquerque with his teammates to train for 10 more days.
Josia still knew nothing of the marathon's history nor of the gravity of the Games when he, a waif of a janitor in a coal-mine hostel -- just 5-foot-2 and 99 pounds in his nylon green and gold tank top and a matching loincloth for running shorts -- toed the starting line downtown on Aug. 4, 1996.
Unburdened by knowledge, so much of an underdog in a wide-open race that not one journalist managed to ask him before the race what a win would mean, Josia's mind was free and clear of the possibility winning held:
A black man, running for Mandela -- running the race of the ancients in the New South, where change came glacially slow.
A black man, running away from his homeland's sad racial past -- running toward a reformed South Africa, where change came more painfully slow.
If he won, not since Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin in 1936 or aboriginal 400-meter runner Cathy Freeman won gold in Sydney in 2000 -- releasing a small measure of Australia's white guilt over the tragedy of the Stolen Generations -- could a more powerful racial message be sent on an Olympic track.
South Africa's first healing, unifying moment on the sporting stage had come the year before, when the Springboks stunningly won the Rugby World Cup. Mandela partnered with the team's white captain, Francois Pienaar, to unite the country behind the most popular sport of white South Africans. Months later, in January 1996, South Africa won the African Cup of Nations for the first time, inspiring whites to unite behind the mostly black national soccer team.
But no black South African had ever won an individual gold medal on the Olympic stage; government money had scarcely been used to develop anyone but South Africa's white athletes. From 1962 to 1971 and then 1977, South Africa actually held segregated national titles for the men's and women's marathons. Between 1971 and 1976, South Africa held no marathon championships for its black runners.
Never had just one black man faced the possibility of millions of white South Africans on the brink of euphoria if he could medal.
Josia was oblivious to all the socio-political implications, and his greatest asset might have been his practical financial motivation. The government awarded 150,000 rand (more than $30,000) to any South African who won gold. "If I can win the race, I can change my life," he thought.
Ignorance wasn't merely bliss; it had the potential to be beautiful.
Josia and South Africa would prevail. The unknown won in the closest finish in Olympic marathon history by a mere three seconds. AP Photo/Doug Mills
TO AVOID THE unrelenting heat of another sticky summer in the South, the race was moved from the traditional afternoon starting time before the closing ceremonies to 7:05 in the morning. By the time it would end, the runners would still have to deal with 80-degree temperatures with 80 percent humidity.
A continent away, the coach's girlfriend drank with friends, young white people in a beach town, at a sports bar in Jeffreys Bay that Sunday, slogging Castle Lagers by the pint.
Annalize Botha thought the atmosphere inside that sports bar magical. A striking, long-limbed, sandy-blonde bank clerk living in Humansdorp in the Eastern Cape, she had recently began dating a running nut with a sparse mustache who worked for the same bank at the headquarters in Johannesburg, more than 500 miles away. The guy said he loved the sound of her voice over the phone and invited himself down.
Jacques Malan told her straight out that he coached distance runners and that his sole goal in life involved being taken seriously by the South African Sports Confederation. For that to happen, one of his pupils needed not just to get to Atlanta but to medal. So if they were going to date, it was running first and her second.
In his home near the Koornfontein Mines, Job Mahlangu turned on the television. Zodwa watched at her brother's house in Bethal.
The race began just after 1 p.m. South Africa time. Penny Heyns had already won two gold medals in the breaststroke, South Africa's first golds since the 1952 Helsinki Games, and one more medal of any kind would give the nation that had been exiled from seven of the last eight Olympics its greatest haul in 44 years.
The marathon's 124 runners circled the track three-and-a-half times before leaving the stadium and running through and around Atlanta for the next three hours. After they moved through the city, they would run past Buckhead's malls; up to Oglethorpe; turn around and run back down through downtown; past Centennial Olympic Park, where a bomb had shaken the Games a week earlier; across the Capital Avenue bridge and into the stadium.
A pack of 50 broke away at 10 miles, and more than 25 of the world's greatest distance runners still envisioned gold at the halfway point of 13.1 miles.
Josia stayed in the middle of that lead pack, content to let others dictate the pace and see what he had left as the contenders dwindled.
Almost unknown internationally, just South Africa's fifth alternate five months before, Josia did not lack long-distance running experience; he had run 18 marathons before Atlanta. But he had won only one outside of South Africa. And, although Honolulu didn't have New York or Boston's prestige, its heat and humidity almost mirrored Atlanta in August. He also wasn't corn-silk thin like many of his peers. His squat, muscled frame better absorbed the humidity.
The first historic moment happened at 15 miles, when Thys, Peu and Josia ran to the front for one of the most unscripted, empowering images of any Olympic Games. Even Tom Hammond, the NBC announcer calling the event, was caught by surprise.
Three black men, unable to vote in their own country until two years ago, unable to compete internationally until five years ago, together in the lead, on the last day of the Games.
Thugwane, Peu and Thys were eventually joined by Lee Bong-ju of South Korea before the pack caught them. Peu and Thys eventually dropped back.
By about 17 miles, it was Josia against the seasoned Lee, who had beaten him in the only race in which they had competed, and the Kenyan Erick Wainaina, a relative novice running in just his fifth marathon.
Did his life mean more than one touch-the-gods moment?
At 19 miles, Josia broke away, but Lee maintained striking distance. Wainaina issued the first real challenge a mile later, surging past Josia, making him turn his head in midstride. Lee then rejoined them and ran to the front with less than 3 miles left as they passed downtown Atlanta for the last time.
Although only a few thousand had come to the stadium for the 9:30 a.m. finish, the crowd grew thicker and louder the closer they got to the track.
In South Africa, cars on the freeway began pulling off at filling stations, crowding televisions around cashiers, to see whether Josia could win.
As they moved past the 25-mile mark, Lee appeared to be strongest, leading Josia and Wainaina by mere yards but sailing along assertively, his chest held high, his eyes straight ahead.
And then it happened, as if he were running that half-marathon for cash across the Swaziland border. At the last water station, inside of a mile, Josia's arms and legs pushed past Lee. He looked back as he entered the stadium, to see how much distance he had created between himself and the other two.
In his broadcasting booth inside the stadium, Ian Laxton's insides were churning faster than Josia's legs. "We knew he would medal by then, but we had no idea what color. These guys were just behind him. There were three of them on the stadium track."
Lee overtook Wainaina in the tunnel, charging fast behind Josia with just a little more than a lap around the track to go. None of them was more than 20 meters ahead or behind the others while in the stadium. Lee kept pressing, creeping up on Josia, trying desperately to seize the lead again, coming within 10 meters.
But Josia suddenly found something more, kicking as if he were running the 400 rather than closing in on his 26th mile. His legs looked longer than those belonging to a 5-2 man, as if the rest of Josia's body belonged to his femurs and his feet. He had come too far, managed too much pain; he wouldn't let himself be beaten.
Looking back once more as he rounded the backstretch with less than 200 meters left, realizing Lee couldn't catch him, he began to exult, windmilling his arms, crossing the finish line in 2 hours, 12 minutes and 36 seconds, 3 seconds ahead of the South Korean, 8 seconds in front of the Kenyan -- the closest finish in Olympic marathon history.
An illiterate man who had overcome abject poverty and a cruel birthright, a janitor in a mine hostel who had been shot in the face just five months before, had won the last gold medal of the Centennial Games -- and the first gold medal belonging to a black man from South Africa.
Bedlam -- on two continents.
Annalize hugged white and black strangers in the streets of a beach town. "The whole country was so proud. Josia is like the lost child that's come home."
Zodwa heard the joyous shots for her husband's victory outside her younger brother's house in Mpumalanga, where dozens watched on a television powered by a generator. She thrust her arms skyward and yelled, "Kuyamangalisa!" Zulu for "It's a miracle."
They poured out of the black townships, out of the gated white neighborhoods, out of malls and restaurants, off the motorways into filling stations. Hell, Shift B stopped production at the Koornfontein Mines -- all celebrating the glory of one man, one flag.
"This is for my country," Josia said after he won. "This is for my president. I'm grateful I have this opportunity. It is an indication to others that if we work hard, all of us have equal opportunity, not like in the past."
Laxton began filling in panicked international journalists who had just two pressing questions: "Do you pronounce the TH in his last name?" And the most common one, "Who is he?"
Later describing Josia's lightness of being in the moment, Laxton said, "His mind had taken over his body and it had blocked out the pain, and all he was aware of in the entire universe was those guys around him and the clock and those kilometer boards. That was it. I don't think that he was gritting his teeth, and I don't think he was feeling."
Job Mahlangu danced inside his home with his last-born, his 5-year-old son. He picked up the phone an hour later, and the man on the other end said, "Did you see me?"
"Josia! Oh my god!"
And there was Jacques Malan, the coach-manager who promised a medal to South African officials, mostly because he knew it was his one shot of being taken seriously and not having to work at the bank for the rest of his life. He wept openly, heaving sobs from underneath the stadium. When he finally reached Josia, he nearly fell into his arms.
Josia looked at Jacques curiously for a moment, as if he didn't know this crazy man, and finally rubbed Jacques' scalp, smiling.
"Jacques, why you are crying? I won."
"HE IS OUR GOLDEN BOY and he has reinforced our pride and confidence as a nation." -- Nelson Mandela, Aug. 5, 1996.
Josia Thugwane came home to two weeks of celebrations, parades and honorary dinners. Ndebele, Xhosa, Zulu and other tribal dancers encircled him at different gatherings, chanting, singing, making up poems of praise for his triumph.
Coca-Cola signed him to a six-figure endorsement contract minutes after his victory, about $200,000 over four years -- enough to allow a poor child from a black township to buy enclosed homes with modern roofing for himself and his immediate family.
Penny Heyns and the other South African medalists weren't sure how they would be received when they returned home. "There was this expectation when we got back that white people would be happy for me and black people would be happy for Josia," Heyns says now. "The big surprise for both of us was the celebration was so united. It was quite overwhelming, actually."
Mandela had them over for lunch at the presidential palace within weeks, and when the server entered the room with the food, Heyns remembers, Mandela took over. "He served us our meals on our plates -- to this day, I can't tell you how humbling, how incredible that was."
Josia intimated to Mandela that he had never gone to school, and Mandela saw that the first and only individual black gold medalist in his nation's history was given an English tutor for free. He sidled up to Josia before he left, smiling widely like only Madiba could.
"You say you're not educated, but your feet are."
Nelson Mandela met Josia and other Olympians at the Johannesburg airport after their triumphant return. "Josia is our golden boy," he said. "He will be a worthy role model to our youngsters to reach for the stars." Julani van der Westhizen/Getty Images
WITHIN WEEKS of his victory, Josia had problems at home -- a famous, relatively wealthy person can go unnoticed in the townships for only so long. He began to be pulled like a wishbone by dueling agents and promoters. He feared his family would be robbed when he left the country to compete. He felt pressure to buy houses for extended family.
Two years later, Jacques Malan, just 43, the only person Josia trusted to direct his career, was diagnosed with colon cancer. It spread quickly to his liver, and he was given three months to live. He made it two years, marrying Annalize three months before he died in June 2000. "I think Jacques was scared I would leave him," she says. "But I wanted to marry him. Even at the end."
"Jacques loved Josia -- he looked at him as his son," recalls Annalize. When Annalize joined Jacques in Johannesburg and Josia and Zodwa followed her move, the couples became best friends. Jacques' devotion to Josia came at everyone's expense. Once, Annalize wondered where her husband was and found him at Josia's house. "He's lifting the rails for the curtains and installing them," Zodwa told her. When she asked where Jacque had got a power drill to do the job, she was told Jacques went and bought one for Josia.
"I had asked him to put pictures up and do many things for our house, and he always said he needed a drill," Annalize says now, half-lamenting. "But if Josia asked, without even asking twice, he would be there."
In their final bedside visit, while Josia was training for the Sydney Olympics, Jacques asked whether he could snip a locket of Josia's short-dreadlocked hair. Annalize found scissors, Josia knelt down and Jacques cut a thick lock. "I will be with you that day when you run," he told Josia.
That September, the night before Josia ran, Annalize took the plastic baggie and tucked it under the pillow where her late husband slept, just as Jacques wanted. It bordered between maudlin and morbid, she knew, but these were the last requests of a dying man. Josia finished 20th in Sydney.
"Obviously it didn't help much," Annalize Malan says now, pursing her lips.
"Jacques was our family," Lawrence Peu says. "We were so used to him doing things for us that we didn't know how to do them on our own. Since he died, nobody replace Jacque Malan as far as I'm concerned. No one could look after the athletes like Jacques Malan."
Josia says he never cried outwardly at the funeral, but "I cry inside."
"I never even grow up [with] my father. For me, Malan is my father. Everything you share, you share like the son and the father. The son is still alive."
Josia continued training and occasionally winning, remaining an internationally sponsored elite marathoner for the next four years. But he never again summoned the human majesty he had that day in Atlanta.
Neither did any of his countrymen.
The mine leagues became a victim of the rand's 2001 devaluation, closing up shop for good in 2004. The country's black elite runners suddenly had no infrastructure of dedicated coaches, employment and preferential job placement to protect their health. The athletic federation stopped searching for the next Josia, discarding the promise of another long-distance champion in favor of sprinters and other athletes. "Josia Thugwane was in a way the last great runner from this country," Laxton laments.
"He was never particularly iconic as a person," Laxton adds. "What he did was very memorable, but he was not [one of] these larger-than-life characters that got themselves in the limelight and remained there because of the force of their character. He's a quiet guy. There were a number of people around him that tried to make him this iconic figure, and kind of tutor him and help him and push him, but it was never him. He was this quiet little small kind of introverted bloke, you know?"
Josia's last marathon victory came in Cape Town in 2006. When the Liberty Nike Athletic Club of Central Gauteng broke up in 2008, he lost more sponsorship and elite partners to train with. He went from collecting about $2,500 a month after his prime to $250 a month just before his retirement.
Josia ran his last competitive race in 2010, dropping out of the Comrades' 90-kilometer ultramarathon barely a third of the way through.
His current manager, Dries Lessing, Malan's onetime assistant, said he knew it was over when a local bank that had Josia on retainer refused to pay him anymore. "He's not winning races," Lessing was told, "so what good is he to us?"
Josia Thugwane returned to a hero's welcome in 1996. Feted like the Olympic champion he was, idolized by the youth of his home province in Mpumalanga, today he laments he can't do more for South Africa's children. Getty Images
"HUMANITY WAS BORN in Africa. All people, ultimately, are African." -- anonymous stone plaque at the Apartheid Museum.
Take a slight left at the marker that reads:
Then look for the wee Dotson puppies outside the yard, the 10 cattle in the background.
The man who brought black and white together in the streets and townships nearly 20 years ago -- the man whose heart and legs helped Mandela heal a broken nation -- is 44 today.
Josia seems, in person, so tiny, a stump of a human, really. He isn't merely small; in that high-pitched broken English, he's a figurine, Yoda in Nike trainers.
"It doesn't matter if you're smaller, if you're taller," he finally says, actually sizing a reporter up. "But if you know what you want."
He digs in to Zodwa's prepared meal, making sure enough of the gravy covers the chicken and rice. Afterward, he helps clear the table and checks to see whether anything on television is different from the news.
His modest houses are paid for, just as the funerals of family he hardly knew have been paid for. He and Zodwa are solidly middle-class, with three children between the ages of 17 and 20. Along with a slight paunch, Josia has acquired a measure of sophistication, unafraid to speak his mind in English.
The big decision now is whether to lease out his farming land. Josia tried harvesting a crop a few years back, but while burning own wheat, he ended up torching his neighbor's fruit orchard, which set him back about $30,000.
Forty-three million black South Africans, 80 percent of the population, spread out over almost 500,000 square miles. One gold medal, sitting in a safe deposit box at a local bank -- belonging to a forgotten national hero.
A reporter asks Josia whether he feels his life has been meaningful, whether he thinks he inspired the kids in that picture on his wall.
He says he made a difference then, "but my dream is to help the young and talented athletes in South Africa [now]. I fail in this goal because I don't have the money from the government or sponsors to help them."
He blames his English more than the country that forgot about him. "Maybe this is the problem. Maybe I'm not good talker."
Nineteen years ago, things came together in just such a way -- Josia's indomitable will, the cultural need for him -- that a certain zeitgeist defined South Africa.
Now he tends his cattle again, his warm-up suit goes back to the closet.
No matter how potent that moment was -- and it doesn't get more potent than race, apartheid, Mandela and the Olympics -- time passes. Eventually, life becomes, Do you rent the land you own to somebody else who knows how to farm it? How much will it cost to have someone cut my grass? And what's Zodwa cooking for dinner?
Nineteen years ago in the New South, Josia Thugwane represented something larger, deeper. And maybe what he represents now is what South Africa represents two decades after Mandela's healing presidency, where the lack of opportunity for young people to progress economically and socially dwarfs American poverty statistics.
And so it goes, the long struggle to find meaning after the magic.
He is living in virtual anonymity, the lion in winter, waiting for his phone to ring, for someone to remember what he said into the camera on Freedom Day: "My name is Josia Thugwane. I am the greatest story no one ever told."
Until then, he is going out to look for his 10 cows, see how far they've strayed before he needs to feed them, before sundown on the savannah.
Mike WiseWise is a senior writer for ESPN's The Undefeated. Hired in January, he spent the last 11 years at the Washington Post as a sports columnist and feature writer. He's covered seven Olympics and 18 of the last 21 NBA Finals.