Deji Ogeyingbo wrote this piece on South African sprinter Clarence Munyai. There is both a text interview and an audio interview below! Please enjoy!
Clarence Munyai is on his career path, competing at Rio Olympics as a teenager, and hopes for African Sprinting
South Africa’s Olympic sprinter Clarence Munyai had a very modest 2022 season as he picked up a Bronze at the African Championships while also competing at the World Championships. With so many highs and lows in his career, the 24-year-Old still has big dreams for the future.
Two-time Olympian Munyai talks about his love for the sport, and how he started out as a kid while giving an insight into what he thinks the governing body needs to grow the sport.
RunBlogRun: How was your upbringing in South Africa?
Clarence Munyai: I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s the capital, and my love for athletics comes a long way. I’m sure in most countries, the first thing you do as a child is athletics. I used to love all sports at school. In primary school, I played cricket and soccer, but I was just a bit better at running. That was where my passion for running started. I had a teacher in High School named Billy who was the first person that believed in my abilities. He was the one that actually got me to do athletics quite properly, and I always allude to my success to him, and I thank him for where I am today.
RunBlogRun: What made you make that decision to pick athletics amongst other popular sports in South Africa?
Clarence Munyai: When I was younger, I wasn’t pretty special at running. I didn’t win any major medals at provincials or anything like that. I was just better at it than the other sports that I played. In the early stages, I used to train to play rugby, which is the biggest sport in South Africa, and obviously, as a young person, I did want to take rugby professionally. However, when I went to some national athletics events without training, I got a bronze at these meets at an early age. My coach then advised me to take the sport seriously, knowing fully well that if I trained well for it, I could be a world-beater. He planted the seed in my head about my potential, and I decided to take the sport seriously.
RunBlogRun: What age was this, and at what point did you envisage yourself doing something special in athletics?
Clarence Munyai: I began to take athletics seriously at age fifteen. After my coach planted the seed in my head, I began to set goals for myself. I remember watching the London Olympics and seeing the great things Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake did. Also, watching them compete in the 4x100m relay really inspired me, and I knew I wanted to compete at that stage. It was a big moment for me.
RunBlogRun: Yeah, it was one of the greatest relays of all time
Clarence Munyai: We all use to watch the relays; that really inspired us like one day. Hopefully, we can get to run at that level. That pushed me as an athlete to set big goals to try to achieve them. Although I have achieved some of those goals, there is still plenty more to come from me.
RunBlogRun: How does it feel like being a two-time Olympian?
Clarence Munyai: I made my first Olympics when I was still in high school. I was in grade 11 when I made my first Olympics, it was a big thing because I was still in school, and at that time we were I was the youngest in the team. It was unheard of for teenagers to go to the Olympics, especially in track and field. So, was a big achievement for me, and it gave me the belief that I can achieve more in the sport.
I always tell people; you can’t really explain the feeling of being at the Olympics. You have to be there in order to experience it. The first one was quite nice. I got to see Usain Bolt running and winning the 100m final. I got to experience Wayde van Niekerk breaking the world record for 400m, and it gave me the motivation that I can achieve these goals if I set my mind to them.
Tokyo was a bit different because of COVID the previous year, so there weren’t fans in the stadium. But obviously, as an athlete, you have to go do what you have been training to do. You can’t always think about the outside noise. It’s just you and the coach or your teammates going into a race; you see it the same way. Just go do what you have to do and forget
about the rest. It was a bit challenging, but I managed it, and I made the semi-final, which made me quite happy.
RunBlogRun: What’s the major difference as an athlete for you running in front of a huge crowd as you did in Rio and not running in front of a crowd because of COVID in Tokyo?
Clarence Munyai: As I said in 2016 since it was the first one, I remember stepping out onto the track the first time, and I saw that the stadium was quite packed. It was a frightening moment for me because I was still young. The stadium was filled to the brim, and it was pretty tense having to perform in front of all the other people in attendance at the stadium.
It was a different experience in Tokyo because there was no cheering. When you go in the block, you can literally hear the block move when you run out. It was really quiet. But obviously, you’ve got to focus on what you have to do regardless of whether there were fans.
RunBlogRun: How was the feeling like breaking the National record in the 200m when you were just 20 years Old?
Clarence Munyai: When I broke the record, I was on a good run of form. I had the African Junior record up to 20.10 before Letsile Tebogo broke it this year. Going into the race, I was pretty confident and had worked really hard. I remember I ran 20.18, my first race of that season, I ran 20.18 as my opener, and I kind of knew that I had something special coming and going to the national champs, where I did break the record. Everything worked out pretty well. The weather was quite good.
Interestingly, I was busy playing games the previous night, which made me a bit late. I almost missed the time because I was supposed to be on the track around eight, but I didn’t hear my alarm, so I rushed to the track. When I got there, I told myself that I have to go up quickly. The race was in slow motion for me. It felt like everything was perfect from when the gun went to the finish. It was literally slow motion. I could remember everything, especially my drive phase.
When I got around the 180m mark and looked at the time and saw 18s, I knew it would be something special. And when I crossed the line and saw 19.69s, I couldn’t believe it because,
it had been one of my goals to break the junior 200 records and then the senior one, and I did it a year after each other.
I did go through some injuries after that. It was then I realized you can’t always be at the top in sports. You could be in your best form and very fit, and when you go into a race, it starts raining. At that point, you just race to win instead of running for times. We have other stuff we go through personally, too. I had to learn to not put too much pressure on myself and take things one step at a time as I recovered from injuries.
RunBlogRun: Talk us through the technicalities of running the 200m, and which do you prefer; the 100m or 200m?
Clarence Munyai: I’ve always loved the 200m, but this year when I did get to learn properly how to run the 100m. The 100m is a very technical race. It’s not like 200m or 400m. If you make a mistake, you can’t recover well, unlike the 200m. I feel I do have to be patient with the 200m. My coach always tells me now that the race is not won at the 50m mark. So, he always tells me to prolong my drive phase. Instead of making my drive 30 meters, I can push it to 50m and also make my transition longer. That’s when you normally get the good times, and you will always be relaxed. So, the 200m takes more patience.
RunBlogRun: What do you make of the current level of African sprinting?
Clarence Munyai: It’s magnificent to see how African sprinting is coming up. A few years ago, we didn’t really have a lot of African sprinters running well. There are obviously a few like Marie Josee Ta Lou and some others, but now many of us in the mix compete at the highest level. The young ones like Letsile Tebogo and Favour Ashe coming up. So it’s like there is a lot of talent coming up every year in Africa, and in the next few years, Africa will probably be dominating the sprints. Long ago, we used to be known as a long-distance continent because we, too, dominated long-distance, but now we dominate sprints as well. And it’s nice to be a part of that.
RunBlogRun: What do you make of the rivalry between Akani and Ferdinand this year?
Clarence Munyai: I really loved it because I was fortunate enough to be in Germiston to watch their first race this season. Before they squared up against each other, I ran the 200m. Everyone in the stadium had their eyes fixed on race. Ferdinand eventually won, but it was pretty close. The stadium was going crazy. I was so excited to watch that race, you know, because they’re two of the best sprinters in 100m, on the continent, and in the world.
After that, they met at the African Championships in Mauritius. I knew it was going to be a nice rematch. Simbine wanted to defend his title, and Omanyala wanted to win it for the first time, so, it was a battle to see who the fastest man in Africa is. I’m even getting goosebumps now talking about it.
I had told my coach that whoever came out after the first 40m was going to be the winner. But when I realized that they were neck and neck after the first 40m, I knew it was going to be pretty close. When they got to 60m and 80m, and it’s still neck and neck, it was always going to be a close finish. I didn’t even know who won at the end, but I just saw 9.94s. I’m looking forward to the rivalry in the coming years.
RunBlogRun: What did you make of Letsile Tebogo and his performance against you at the African Championships?
Clarence Munyai: He’s pretty special. When I first watched him over the 100m at a meet in Botswana earlier this year, he just seemed to take it easy with about 30m to go. I haven’t seen that as a junior. The last time I saw someone do that was obviously Usain Bolt, and he did it at a higher level.
Coming up against him at the African Championships, there was a feeling he was going to do something special too. I remember him being on my inside, and although I usually do have quite a quick turn, he was up on me in the first 60m. In the end, he kind of slowed down before the finish. The weather was pretty bad because. It was pouring with strong headwinds. Running 20.2 was very fast in those conditions for him. He went on and replicated that performance at the World Championships in Eugene, and he did it again at the World Juniors.
So, he’s a rare breed.
RunBlogRun: What do you think was the major factor that helped the rise of the relays in South Africa?
Clarence Munyai: We realized a lot of us were running sub-10s consistently over a period, and all we needed was to focus on putting together. Obviously, because we are sprinters, we naturally wanted to focus on ourselves. We began to have relay camps twice a month.
Sometimes the relay isn’t won by the fastest squad. It’s won by the team that gets together well and has a good baton exchange. Our biggest mistake is in the past; we just thought we could come together and race like that on race day.
We started putting more emphasis on like the training and the technicalities of relays; it helped us get a good team and start grinding good times. It started in Doha in 2019 when we broke the African record, and it was all thanks to the camps we used to do.
RunBlogRun: What do you think needs to be done to grow Track and Field?
Clarence Munyai: Athletes need to be a part of it more. When we went to Paris in 2017, we were given the media platform to talk to journalists, and we got them in on it as well to assist us with trying to hype up the championships. The ordinary fan likes rivalries. For example, when you watch Man United Vs. Man City, it’s always a battle for which team is the best. I remember as well, Akani Vs. Ferdinand, most people, went to go watch that because that’s what they like it.
At the World Champs, the 200m was based around Noah versus Knighton, which was the race to the championship. Most people don’t really understand the times because time can be fast or slow, depending on the weather. We need to build more rivalries in the sport and hype it up in a nice way.
RunBlogRun: Who are the top three celebrities you’ve met outside athletics?
Clarence Munyai: I have to say Usain because he’s a celebrity, even though he was a track and field. I’ve met Usain Bolt. I think that’s about it because when I go to championships, I lock myself up all in the room. I never get to see people. I always get people to tell me they met this star, and I’m like, oh, I missed out because I was in the room. I need to change that, though.