Biographies of Famous South Africans
Special South Africans


Those who have inspired us. Those who have defined us.
Those who have shown us our common humanity.

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Josiah Thugwane
Olympic Gold Medallist
15 April 1971 - ?

Josiah ThugwaneJosiah 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 hitch-hikers.

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 afterwards:
"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 community."

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.


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