Thugwane was born in the small town of Bethal. A former soccer player, the 5’ 2" / 99 lbs. Thugwane began running marathons in 1990 (while still
only 19) as a way to support his family. He ran more
than 50 marathons over the next five years, before
realising that through hard training and a focus on
select international events, he could reap much greater
rewards. At the Atlanta Olympics this marathon runner
became the first South African to win gold. With
Apartheid's hold on South Africa ending, not since Jesse
Owens won four gold medals in the Nazi Germany of 1936
had an Olympic victory carried such importance.
Josiah carried with him in that race the mark of a
hijacker’s bullet on his chin. When he was selected for
Atlanta, he bought a bakkie (a small van, a Mazda) to
celebrate. A fortnight later his vehicle was hijacked by
One pulled a gun and he now bears the scar of a bullet
that ripped an inch-long furrow from left to right
across his chin. He was left with his bullet wound, and
an injured back from leaping from the vehicle. A fear
for his safety haunts him still. When he returned from
Atlanta he found he was a target for begging neighbours
and gangs of criminals eyeing his newly-won wealth. He
has been subjected since to demands and death threats.
To escape he keeps moving house. And to train he heads
for the bush. His latest move came after his wife was
greeted at the gate of their home by the severed head of
a monkey impaled on the garden railings.
His coach and mentor Jacques Malan did much for the
young star. Jacques stayed with the men’s marathon team
at their high altitude training camp in Albuquerque.
There he guided them in training, he cooked for them and
washed their clothes. Jacques gained the confidence of
Josiah, and he asked him to be his manager the day after
he won in Atlanta. Josiah said at a news conference
"I won the medal for all the people of South Africa and
especially for my president, Nelson Mandela, who made it
possible for us to be part of the international
Josiah’s victory was not the end of an Olympic dream,
for the young man it was the start of a new journey. His
is a story of triumph over overwhelming odds in the
journey of life. One of the first things that Josiah did
under the tutelage of Jacques, was to learn to read and
write. It was important for him to express himself in
the media, so he learned to speak English, something he
had to master.
In 1997 Thugwane demonstrated that the Gold Medal was no
fluke, taking third at the London Marathon in 2:08:06,
then later that year lowering his best (and the South
African Record) to 2:07:28 in winning Fukuoka. A seventh
place finish in the 2000 London Marathon and a sixth
place finish in the New York City Marathon indicated
that he was in top form. In 1997 he was also crowned as
South Africa's sportsman of the year. But it is Josiah's
humility that has captured the hearts of many. In that
year, Josiah forfeited his spot in the world marathon
championships to give another runner the opportunity to
compete internationally. He also spent some of his prize
money from his third-place London Marathon finish on
buying running shoes to dispense to people in townships.
So, Josiah went to Sydney, only the third man ever in
Olympic history to defend the marathon title. Sadly,
Jacques Malan was not at his side, for the teacher, the
mentor and the coach has passed on, a victim of cancer.
Many wonder if the death of such a man as Jacques had an
effect on Josiah. Josie has the last word, he looks
wistfully out of a window:
“One of the most important things that I learned from
Malan was how to keep my spirit strong. I will need a
strong spirit to win”.
Josiah Thugwane did not live up to South African
expectations in Sydney, but in April 2002 he scored a
2:13:23 victory in the Nagano Olympic Memorial Marathon
in Japan. If ever there was an icon for the new South
Africa, it is in truth this athlete. He now lives in
Johannesburg with his wife and four children.