Saturday, December 8, 2001
Josia Thugwane is still running.
After adversity, Thugwane is back
Zakharova seeks return to top
By Jerry Campany
He has run through the end of apartheid in his native land and run through a gunshot wound. He has run in anonymity and national stardom.
The South African is finally back in Hawaii to defend the crown he won way back in 1995, when he was the fastest to complete the largest Honolulu Marathon in its 28 years.
Forgive him for not returning sooner, he was just a little bit busy.
Since his first international win in Honolulu six years ago, Thugwane has won Olympic Gold in 1996, been mugged twice -- getting shot in the chin in the first attack -- and settled into doing what an old coal miner can to make his country even better. The excitement around South Africa waned in the face of unemployment and rampant crime. Athletic achievement is fine for taking your mind off your stomach, but the hunger always returns.
"People were happy (about his gold) just for the time," Thugwane said. "I love my country, but without any jobs I am still not walking free."
The first attack didn't stop him from competing; it made him better. Four months later, he won the closest Olympic Marathon in history by three seconds and returned home a hero. It was something he never anticipated, as he went into the Olympics honestly believing it was just another race, a competition on par with the Honolulu Marathon.
"It surprised me to go back," Thugwane said. "I see the airport is full and everybody is my friend. I thought 'Josia, what are you doing now? Maybe this is a big thing in the world.' "
But being a hero is not all it is cracked up to be. "Running for your country is a big thing," Thugwane said. "Everybody knows me now, thinks that because I run fast I have a lot of money. It is a dangerous thing."
Because his face was famous and fame equals money in the minds of criminals, Thugwane was attacked again after returning. He hurt his back in the carjacking and still tried to run, but he was nowhere near as fast as before. The Olympic champion was happy just to finish.
He missed the next year when he aggravated his back further by stepping in a pothole while racing.
Thugwane always wanted to come back to the scene of one of his most memorable wins, but his manager thought he wasn't healthy enough and that the $15,000 purse is small potatoes for a gold medal winner. He is healthy enough now, and has been brought back to Earth by his injury problems, so he returns to Honolulu expecting to win. Since he is 30 years old and injury plagued, it may be his last real chance to win.
He expects to run competitively for seven more years, so he is grooming a stable of other black South Africans -- he was the first South African black to win a gold medal -- to take his place. He finds as much satisfaction in their accomplishments as he does in his own.
He also owns and operates athletic clubs called the Josia Highlanders in his Johannesburg neighborhood, even putting kids up in his spacious home. He doesn't do it because he wants his country to be strong in the marathon, he does it so that he can make his native land better one youngster at a time.
"After kids finish school, it is easy for them to make crime," Thugwane said. "If I can keep them busy, maybe my country becomes safer. I have to try to help, if I try to do something, it's good."
After being attacked the second time, Thugwane countered by building his compound in the suburbs where he can train in safety. He didn't retreat into his shell and ignore the problem though.
"When people are hungry they do anything to get food," Thugwane said. "The people who robbed me before the Olympics were hungry. I would do the same thing if I am hungry."
Thugwane will not be able to sneak up on the field this year as he did in 1995 and in the Olympics.
Two-time defending champion Jimmy Muindi knows all about the gold medalist.
Muindi, 29, is running the course for the eighth time, with all of his finishes in the top five. Nobody has been faster than he has in Honolulu for the past two years. He placed 10th in the Berlin Marathon with a time of 2:11:42 and has been looking forward to defending his title here once again.
Countryman Mbarak Hussein, 34, was the last winner before Muindi, and could take his title back this year. Hussein came in fifth in Boston last April after coming in third in Honolulu last year.
Japanese Olympian Shinji Kawashima is in town to represent his country and considers just running in the widely followed event a success.
"It is my dream," Kawashima said. "I always wanted to run in the Honolulu Marathon. I have never been here, I have only heard about it, so I don't know (the course) but I am prepared, I will do my best."
Other contenders among the men are Moses Taye of Ethiopia, Sivuyile Ndwembeni of South Africa, Simon Mrashani of Tanzania and Simon Chemoiywo and Eliud Kering of Kenya.