Willie Mtolo/ Lusapho April
Column at ING NYC Marathon
By ELLIOTT DENMAN
NEW YORK – “I would love to be like Willie,” marathon man Lusapho April tells you.
“He is my hero.
“He is a hero to so many people in my country.”
For good reason.
When Willie Mtolo won the 1992 NYC Marathon title in 2:09:29, easily outrunning Andres Espinosa of Spain (2:10:53) and Wan-Ki Kim of South Korea (2:10:54) it was one for the history books.
It was a win for Mtolo’s nation as well as a win for democracy.
Not only was it the first time a South African runner had won the classic five-borough race but it was the finest signal an athlete could send back to his one-troubled homeland that the detested social system of apartheid was gone forever.
He’d won it for Nelson Mandela, who’d led the way. He’d won it for his South African countrymen, who were freed at last to live out the dreams of their lives.
“I have a dream,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had told the world.
Willie Mtolo had a dream, too – to lead the way through the five boroughs.
It took him a year to live it out – but yes it did come true.
“I had first wanted to run in New York in 1991,” he said a pre-race media gathering Thursday
– attended by South African countryman Lusapho April and a flock of other contenders, at Marathon press headquarters in Central Park, perhaps a 100-meter dash from the finish line of Sunday’s spectacle.
“I was in very good shape, too; but they wouldn’t let me run,” Mtolo said of the day he still rues.
In 1991, with apartheid-ruled South Africa still banned from the Olympic Games and almost all
major international sports events, Mtolo could only be a spectator.
“I was here, too. I was ready. I wanted to run so badly. I’d already run2:08 in South Africa. The winning time in New York was 2:09 (point 28, by Salvador Garcia of Mexico.) I knew I
could run better than that. It was a terrible feeling.”
But he was also persona non grata because of South Africa’s outlier status.
“Apartheid killed do many hopes, so many opportunities.”
But sport also helped kill apartheid. It showed the separatists that their world wouldn’t crumble. It demonstrated the universal common ground that every athletic event provided.
“Nelson Mandela himself was an athlete (as a young boxer),” said Mtolo. “We are all sure that his background as an athlete helped keep him going through all those years (27) he was in prison.”
When the Mandela-led efforts at last brought the reward so many had sought – and so
many hard-liners had resisted to the very end – and apartheid rule came crashing down,
Mtolo’s life opened to a world of new opportunities.
He took every advantage of them and very good things happened.
With the 1992 NYC Marathon championship attained, he was voted South Africa’s sportsman of the year. The $20,000 prize money he earned in New York, along with the $30,000 bonus he earned for
running under 2:10, was put to great use. He bought a home in the Durban suburbs, and soon
found the Mercedes-Benz sedan he also won the perfect vehicle for pursuing his many civic activities
around his home city and homeland.
In his brilliant running career, Mtolo would win eight other major marathons, in locales as diverse
as Rotterdam, Kosice (Slovakia), Macau and Hong Kong. On South African home territory, he won the Two Oceans Marathon, and twice ran second in the classic 56-mile Comrades Marathon.
In 1996, Josia Thugwane of South Africa made history of his own by winning the Olympic marathon
title with a 2:12:36 run through steamy Atlanta. He’d done what Kenneth MacArthur had done in
2:36:54 in 1912 – brought an Olympic gold medal back to South Africa.
But MacArthur’s South Africa would bear little resemblance to Mtolo’s South Africa, to Thugwane’s South Africa, to Hendrick Ramaala’s South Africa.
A second South African, Ramaala, would win the 2004 NYC Marathon title in
2:09:28 – ironically just one second faster than Mtolo a dozen years earlier. And Ramaala would return to the Big Apple to run second (to Paul Tergat of Kenya, by just 3/10 of a second) in the gut-wrenching, down-to-the-wire 2005 race, and then placed ninth in 2006, third in 2007 and sixth in 2009.
No South African man reached top-10 status in NYC 2010 and 2011 and, with the Sandy-cancelled 2012 event, that gives Lusapho April the heavy responsibility of restoring his nation’s
NYC Marathon luster.
Officially, the 31-year-old from the town of Uitenhage is a long-long shot heading into Sunday’s 43rd running of the ING NYC Marathon, the Big City’s biggest footrace – not counting the five-borough residents’ daily dash to catch their IND, BMT or IRT subways to work every morning and
home each evening.
How much of a long shot?
Well, even with a personal best of 2:08:13 – which he attained winning the Hannover Marathon in Germany this spring – he didn’t make the cut to have his full biography in the 14-runner professional athlete profile of the race’s official media guide.
Then again, he’s never broken 2:07, as seven in Sunday’s field have done; has never medaled in the Olympic Games, World Championships or any of the World Marathon Majors series.
He did run the marathon at the 2012 London Olympic Games – but finished a disappointing 43rd place after toppling to the pavement in a mid-race slip.
Lusapho April, 31 years old, is bursting with confidence.
“I don ‘t care what those other guys have done,” he says. “ I have trained well, I know I can run with all of them.”
“I think he is ready,” chimed in Mtolo.
No man being an island, Lusapho April knows he’s running for South Africa’s greater role on the world stage.
Mtolo recognizes, “There are a still a lot of questions in South Africa. We still don’t have all the answers. Many things still need to be done. They cannot be done in one day, one month or one year.
But we can see the difference.
“There has never been an Olympics in Africa, but we have had the World Cup of soccer, the World Cup of rugby.
“So maybe the Olympics will come some day, too. In the 2020s or the 2030s. Maybe.”
In the interim, there are incremental targets.
And Lusapho April, running for his country, is pledged to take them one step at a time, over 26 miles, 385 yards, five bridges, five boroughs, through all those Big Apple neighborhoods with all those ethnicities, before maybe three million spectators and a global TV audience.
Willie Mtolo will be monitoring his progress. Maybe Hendrick Ramaala. Maybe Josia Thugwane. Maybe even Nelson Mandela.
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