Twenty years ago, at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Josia Thugwane shocked his nation by becoming the first black South African to win an Olympic gold medal.
In the words of Nelson Mandela, Thugwane “reinforced our pride and confidence as a nation.”
Josia had to overcome more than just his competitors in the marathon in the 1996 Olympics, but also the segregation and oppression of apartheid that he had grown up under.
While trying to earn a living by gardening for an older woman in 1988, Josia asked a join a local running team that was sponsored by a mining company. With no formal education and no running shoes, Josia saw this as an opportunity. At 18, he was given a job as a janitor, mopping floors and cleaning rooms for the mining company in a coal mine hostel, and was allowed to train with the company’s running team.
But even running was segregated in apartheid South Africa.
During apartheid, whites generally had the access to technical instruction, equipment and running tracks that were forbidden to blacks. In all of what was formerly considered black South Africa, there is only one all-weather running surface, in the township of Soweto. Blacks generally took to road racing, where shoes were the only equipment needed and bare feet would often suffice.
Still, blacks suffered legislated discrimination. In the past, black runners were frequently stopped by police for running through white areas without carrying their identification papers.
Josia quickly became one of the best long-distance runners in the country, and in 1993 he won the national marathon championship in Cape Town and eventually earned a spot on the South Africa Olympic team for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He was thrilled to be able to run for Mandela – the man who freed all South Africans just two years earlier when he was elected president of the country.
At the Olympics, he was so much of an underdog in the marathon that not one journalist managed to ask him before the race what a win would mean.
But here was Josia, a black man, running for Mandela — running the race of the ancients. A black man, running away from his homeland’s sad racial past — running toward a reformed South Africa.
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, 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.
Never had just one black man faced the possibility of millions of white South Africans on the brink of euphoria if he could medal.
In a stunning upset, Josia won the marathon by just 3 seconds in what was the closest finish in Olympic marathon history.
Josia had become South Africa’s first black Olympic gold medalist.
In South Africa, they poured out of the black townships, out of the gated white neighborhoods, out of malls and restaurants, off the motorways into filling stations – all celebrating the glory of one man, one flag.
“I won this gold medal for the people of South Africa. I also won this gold medal for President Nelson Mandela. His efforts to end apartheid have made us free – free to run, free to be part of the international community. Without him, I would not be standing here today as Olympic champion,” Thugwane said.
“It is an indication to others that if we work hard, all of us have equal opportunity, not like in the past.”
Josia Thugwane came home to two weeks of celebrations, parades and honorary dinners. Nelson Mandela even said of Thugwane’s historic victory, “He is our golden boy and he has reinforced our pride and confidence as a nation.”
Tony Longhurst, Thugwane’s agent, said, “For a country that has been through so much political turmoil, this is a huge hope for the future. We can have heroes who don’t have to be black or white. They can be South Africans.”