By Gary Lemke
It was the afternoon after the night before and as Luvo Manyonga, the feelgood South African story of these Olympic Games so far, sat next to the country’s sporting dignitaries, he allowed himself to reflect.
It was a reflection not only on Saturday night in the Olympic stadium, where a final leap of 8.37m seemed to have been enough to win the country’s first gold medal in Rio, until it was snatched away from him by one centimetre, by Jeff Henderson of the United States. Such are the small margins in sport, as in life itself.
‘I didn’t really sleep, I’m still on SA time,’ a beaming Manyonga told the media in the athletes village, flanked by the Minister of Sport Fikile Mbalula, SASCOC chief executive and chef de mission in Rio, Tubby Reddy, and SASCOC president Gideon Sam.
Manyonga’s story has been well documented, but for those who don’t know, here it is in a nutshell: The 25-year-old from Mbekweni township outside Paarl in the Western Cape, has always been a prodigious talent. He won gold at the 2010 World Junior Championships in Canada and looked to have the world at his feet. However, like many teenagers (he was 19) he fell victim to the daily pitfalls of township life and was dragged down. His life quickly spiralled in the wrong direction and he was dragged into the dark world of recreational drugs.
Not only did he serve an 18-month ban but his coach, Mario Smith, was killed in a car accident in 2014. There is more to tell, but that for the young man to reveal in his own time and on his own terms.
‘There were thousands of those “demons” on my journey from 2012, but they didn’t catch me,’ Manyonga said. Amen to that. ’[Last night] I didn’t see a gold medal, I actually tasted it. But then the guy from the US came and took it from my hand, but that’s ok, that’s what competition is. Next year though I will deliver gold [at the World Championships in London].
Manyonga praised the influence of president Sam in helping turn his life around. ‘Gideon came all the way down to Cape Town, then to Paarl and then to Mbekweni and he believed in me. I am a living example of that it’s possible from where I was to where I am today. Thousands of people people look up to me, and I’m [hopefully] a motivation to small kids. I like to tell people from the township that everything is possible with God’s help. I tell them to try to reach far.’ And in a message to those back home, he said, ‘Mom, I made it. She always told me “son, this [medal] is yours. Thank you South Africa, I love you guys!’
Mbalula pointed to the power of sport and the difference it can make from grassroots level. “Luvo’s story and many others like him is a celebration. This [Luvo] tells the South African youth, “take yourself to your own destination”. This is a journey of a South African who started at “a” to where he is now. He came through life’s challenges and coming here to Rio, to go centre stage and win a silver is a story. It was almost clinching gold. It’s a remarkable story that needs to be told,’ the sports minister said.
‘This Olympic message is that we don’t need to cut budgets. Sport changes lives. You can’t skop and donner to fight crime. We need to invest in sport and get more role models. The townships have dried up with role models. Thanks to Gideon and SASCOC for supporting this young star. Mbekweni, Paarl, will never be the same. We stand with their hero,’ Mbalula added.
Reddy agreed that ‘Luvo’s story must be told. Last night was historic, a silver medal is a silver medal, it’s what champions are made of. We have invested a lot in athletes. Some have done well, some not so well, but that’s the nature of sport. If the country focused on what we were doing rather than attacking us for unnecessary reasons that would be a plus for us. SASCOC is doing the best it came with limited resources. There are many more Luvos out there,’ he said.
Last word from Sam: ‘Luvo’s demons in our culture are real. Many come from broken homes, dysfunctional homes, those are the demons that are holding us back. It’s more than sport, it’s about helping that person, it’s a long journey. Many people made a contribution to change Luvo’s life. And if the opportunity arises we must all go out there and find another Luvo.’