A long trek ends in triumph Marathoner Thugwane beat more than racism in South African first; ATLANTA OLYMPICS


ATLANTA -- Josia Thugwane overcame some steep hills and 95 percent humidity yesterday to win the men's marathon at the 1996 Olympic Games, becoming the first black South African to earn an Olympic gold medal. But what Thugwane survived here in the final track and field event of the competition paled in comparison with what he experienced five months ago at home.

There, Thugwane literally fought for his life.

Driving between the towns of Bethel, where his wife and four daughters live, and Kriel, about six miles away, Thugwane's car was stopped by four men who robbed him at gunpoint. Three of them jumped in the car with him and he jumped out as they drove away, but not before a brief scuffle led to Thugwane's being shot. The bullet grazed his face, and he now wears a two-inch scar on his chin.

"I thought it wasn't going to be possible for me to run again," said Thugwane, 25, who injured his back while falling out of the moving car.

His employers at the Koornfontein coal mine, where he works as a security guard while he trains, picked up the medical costs. They also allowed him to leave South Africa two months ago for Albuquerque, N.M., where running at altitude and in occasional heat prepared Thugwane for what he faced here.

Near the front of a pack of about 15 to 20 runners until the 19-mile mark of the 26-mile, 385-yard race, Thugwane was the first to break away from a group that included pre-race favorites Martin Fiz of Spain and German Silva of Mexico. Though he was caught shortly thereafter by Lee Bong-Ju of South Korea and Eric Wainaina of Kenya, it was Thugwane who used a final burst on a downhill stretch less than two miles from the entrance to Olympic Stadium to win in a time of 2 hours, 12 minutes, 36 seconds.

That burst provided 10 meters of breathing room, enough for Thugwane to soak in the applause from an early-morning crowd of 8,646 as he ran through the tunnel of the stadium and onto the track for the last lap. While it never seemed to be in doubt once he got inside, Thugwane's three-second victory over Lee was easily the closest finish in Olympic history, shattering the mark of 13 seconds from the 1920 marathon in Antwerp, Belgium. Wainaina finished third, five seconds behind Lee, to become the first Kenyan to win a medal in an Olympic marathon.

"I feel very good for winning the medal," said Thugwane, whose victory in the marathon was the first by a South African since Kenneth McArthur and Christian Gitsham won gold and silver at the 1912 Olympics. "I win the medal for my country. I win the medal for my president [Nelson Mandela]. What the medal means is that the problems in my country are over. We are free to run. We are part of the international community. We will be there and be counted."

Considering the depth and quality of the competition, Thugwane's victory was even more of an upset than Hezekiel Sepeng's silver medal in the 800 meters last week, the first medal ever by a black South African since the country that was banned from Olympic competition from 1964 through 1988 because of its apartheid policies rejoined the Games with both black and white athletes in Barcelona, Spain, four years ago.

Fiz, the reigning world champion, finished fourth, 36 seconds behind Wainaina. Silva, who won the last two New York marathons, came in sixth, nearly two minutes behind Thugwane. Dionicio Cerone of Mexico, who finished second to Fiz last summer in Sweden, was a disappointing 15th. The top American finisher was Keith Brantly of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who came in 28th.

"The training in Albuquerque helped me," said Thugwane, one of several South Africans to go there during the spring. "I knew Albuquerque was hot, just like Atlanta. I was not as hot as I expected."

Just as the victory here by women's marathon gold medalist Fatuma Roba will break down the gender barriers in Ethiopia, Thugwane's gold medal certainly will help continue to push young black runners in South Africa toward their own Olympic dreams. It marks the fourth marathon victory by a black South African in major competitions since 1992.

"I think this will send a tingle through those who watched it at home," said Tony Longhurst, Thugwane's manager.

Those who watched Abdul Wasiqi's struggle yesterday didn't feel a tingle, maybe just a tinge of sympathy, even though the 20-year-old from Afghanistan took pride in what he accomplished. It didn't matter that Wasiqi, the youngest runner in the field, finished more than two hours after Thugwane, or that his time of 4: 24.17 was the slowest ever recorded by anyone who has finished an Olympic marathon.

"It's a very important Olympic ideal," said Wasiqi, who came here two weeks ago from Kabul but couldn't train because of a thigh injury. "I came for Afghanistan, I represent my country to the world, to show that Afghanistan is still living and that we have not died during the 16-year war."

The significance of an Afghani finishing a marathon near the hometown of former President Jimmy Carter was lost on Wasiqi, who was only 4 years old when the Soviet invasion of his country led to Carter's calling for a boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow and is only one of three competing here for a country that missed the last Olympics. "It's not important who came in first, second or 20th," said Wasiqi, who crossed a tape stretched across the finish line by some volunteers.

The stadium was closed long before Wasiqi finished as crews prepared for the closing ceremonies, but stadium officials agreed to let Wasiqi in.

Pub Date: 8/05/96

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