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Duncan still dreams of being on 2012 podium

By Vata Ngobeni

The 2008 Beijing Olympics were hard to watch for most South Africans because of our athletes’ disappointing performances.

Picture 3The country only secured a solitary silver medal courtesy of Khotso Mokoena in the long jump. The nation’s reaction to this failed excursion to Asia was justified as administrators and athletes alike were questioned about their preparations and their apparent lack of commitment.

While athletes and administrators played the blame game, a young man sat at his home in Ga-Rankuwa and pondered his future, oblivious to the furore raging in the country’s various sporting codes.

In fact, Duncan Mahlangu couldn’t have cared less about what people were saying about what had or hadn’t happened at the Beijing Olympics. Mahlangu didn’t watch a single event. Watching the Olympics would have put Mahlangu through endless hours of pain and regret.

‘I just couldn’t watch the Olympics. My fate had been decided at the African qualifiers where I believed that I had done enough to win my bout. Unfortunately people don’t always see things the same and the result didn’t go my way.

‘Another thing is that taekwondo is a one-man sport and with South Africa having so many other sporting codes it may not have mattered whether I qualified or not.

‘To me it did matter. I felt that I had let my country down, but more importantly, I had let myself down. It had a major impact on my life. It was then that I wondered what the use was of me continuing with this sport. I guess it was just anger at that stage but I really believed that it was over,’ says the Athens Olympian.

The bellowing fires that looked to consume South African sport in the aftermath of the Beijing Olympics disaster have been extinguished through time and Mahlangu’s dream of standing on the Olympic podium has been reignited.

Earlier in 2009 Mahlangu was given renewed hope when he was named as one of the few hand-picked athletes for SASCOC’s high performance squad, Operation Excellence (OPEX), in preparation for the London Olympics in 2012.

‘When my name was mentioned as one of the┬á country’s medal hopefuls I realised my dream was far from over. Instead this was a new beginning for me and I am going to use the disappointment of not making it to Beijing as motivation to do well in London.

‘People believe in me and there is no reason why I shouldn’t believe in myself. I want to go to London and stand on that podium and receive my medal. After that I can retire and make way for other youngsters.

‘Someone must take over and do better than me in 2016. I will stay in the sport to help develop future stars, as I don’t see myself taking part in the 2016 Olympics. So there is pressure for me to succeed, but I can only do my best and I believe that my best will see me succeed.

‘It won’t be anything new for me. I have been to the Olympics and I know what it takes to win,’ said the 26-year-old from Ga-Rankuwa’s Mmakau village.
‘I have been living in Korea as part of a CPI cultural exchange programme which runs for six months. I am there to study but it has also been good for my taekwondo as I train with the best instructors and athletes in my discipline. It has been a good move for me as I can still continue with my studies and train at the same time,’ Mahlangu says.

It is during his time at Korea’s KyungHee University under the tutelage of Master Song and Master Lee that Mahlangu hopes to refine his skills and become one of the best in the world of taekwondo.

Mahlangu credits the Athens Games as an experience of a lifetime, even though he was overwhelmed by the occasion and failed to progress through the preliminary round, going down to Gabriel Sagustume of Guatemala.

‘There will be a big difference between 2004 and 2012. I didn’t know that the stage was that big back then. All the television cameras, massive crowds and the level of competition was just too much. It was my first time competing at that level. Even though the crowds weren’t supporting me, I knew that there were people back at home watching. When I go to London it will almost be 10 years later … I’m not perfect but I will have picked up plenty of experience,’ he says.

Back then all had seemed perfect for Mahlangu as he went to the Athens Olympics ranked second in the world after a fairytale performance at the World Olympic Qualifying tournament in Paris in December 2003.

With 110 countries competing in his category and only four automatic Olympic qualifying places up for grabs, Mahlangu shocked himself and the taekwondo world by making it to the final.

In 2002 he had managed to get a junior silver and senior bronze medal at the 2002 Korea Open and was also a bronze medallist at the 2002 Korean Ambassador Cup in Johannesburg.

While his achievements may be few and far between, Mahlangu remains among the best in the continent after winning a silver medal at the All Africa Games in 2007.

The fairytale can be relived for Mahlangu as he believes that his eight-year relationship with trainer and mentor Master Cho will put him in good stead for the London Olympics.

‘Wow, I owe a lot to him. I like him very much and he understands me. I would rather stop taekwondo than have another coach. He has always handled things professionally and has a way of showing me my mistakes without being too hard on me. I need Master Cho to do well. I know it’s not going to be easy but he always tells me that it is possible as long as we work hard. We have been through a lot together,’ Mahlangu says about the national taekwondo coach.

Mahlangu didn’t end up in taekwondo by chance, after following in the footsteps of his high-school teacher Chris Moche in learning about the sport. While he will look back on the disappointments of previous Olympics as major learning curves in his life, it might be advisable for him to also turn to his home village for the inspiration needed to get to the top.

Mmakau is also the birthplace of the second richest man in the country, mining magnate Patrice Motsepe. Motsepe has told the story of how he once had his car repossessed but through hard work and chasing his dreams, he hit paydirt.

Mahlangu may have reached the lowest trough in his taekwondo career but there is no reason why he won’t stand on top of the world and deliver that elusive medal in 2012.

This article first appeared in SASCOC’s quarterly Road to London, 2012 magazine. Ngobeni is chief sports writer for the Pretoria News