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Josiah Thugwane (1971 - )

The Order of Ikhamanga in

Josiah Thugwane (1971 - ) Awarded for:
His excellent achievement during the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 and his contribution to the field of athletics.

Profile of Josiah Thugwane

Mr Josiah Thugwane was born on 15 April 1971 in town of Bethal in Mpumalanga. Coming from humble beginnings, having no schooling, yet he rose to become an internationally celebrated and respected athlete. Mr Thugwane was the first black South African athlete to win an Olympic gold medal after the transition to democracy in 1994. 

A former soccer player, Mr Thugwane was a speedy striker, but too small to make it as a professional player, which had been his childhood dream. 

One day, at the age of 17, while watching a television programme that featured South African iconic distance stars Matthews Temane and Xolile Yawa, he decided that running was the future for him. His first move in that direction was to enter a half-marathon. He won, taking home R50.00 as the winner. “That was it: I knew I was a runner and this was my way out,” said Mr Thugwane. In 1988, his life changed when he ran away from a farm to pursue his dream of his new-found sport, that of being a marathon runner. 

In 1989, he found work as a kitchen cleaner in a mining company in order to run under the mining club. 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. 

His first win in an international race came in 1995 at the Honolulu Marathon in Japan. This was a tremendous breakthrough for Mr Thugwane. 1996 was his best year ever in his running career. He won the Old Mutual national championships in Cape Town, which qualified him to go to the Atlanta Olympic Games in the United States of America. 

He won a gold medal during the Olympics in Atlanta, and became the first South African to win gold after South Africa was readmitted into international sports. With apartheid’s hold on South Africa having ended, not since Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the Nazi Germany of 1936, had an Olympic victory carried such importance.

In the course of a little over two hours and 10 minutes, on the final day of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, the life of South African marathon athlete Mr Josiah Thugwane was changed irrevocably.

Mr Thugwane defeated an elite field in one of the Olympics’ most prestigious events to give South Africa an unexpected third gold medal at the Games after swimming star Penny Heyns had won two in the pool.

Mr Thugwane’s victory was not the end of an Olympic dream; it was the start of a new journey. One of the first things that Mr Thugwane did under the tutelage of Jacques Malan, his trainer, was to learn to read and write. It was important for him to express himself in the media, so he learned to speak English.

In 1997, Mr Thugwane demonstrated that the gold medal was no fluke, finishing third in the London Marathon, and then later that year lowering his best time 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 Mr Thugwane’s humility that has captured the hearts of many. In 1997, 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.

He suffered a number of injuries after the Olympics, but has proved since then that he remains a major contender in any marathon he enters. He went to the Sydney Olympics, the third man ever in Olympic history to defend the marathon title. He now lives in Johannesburg with his wife and four children.

Today Mr Thugwane is doing more than just competing. I’m starting now to help younger athletes in South Africa, he explained. I help to train, to provide training shoes, and to coach. I myself am sponsored by Nike and Coca-Cola, but when I need shoes for up-and-coming athletes, I buy the shoes myself – it’s no problem.

We are proud to honour Mr Josiah Thugwane with the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for his outstanding achievements on and off the track and for promoting South Africa’s sporting prowess around the world.

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