On 13th August 2016 a twenty-five year old from Paarl in the Western Cape of South Africa stood at the end of a runway. A camera to his right and 130 feet of polymetric rubber in front of him. All around him a dark Rio de Janeiro night. The scattered glow of stadium floodlights and flittering phone cameras piercing the night sky. A lively din reverberating around the arena. One solemn stare into the distance.
It was the fifth round of the men’s long jump final at the thirty-first Olympiad and Luvo Manyonga was in unchartered territory. Just one round before Manyonga, all in green with yellow and white stripes down the side, had leaped further than ever before. 8 metres, 28 centimetres, a personal best by two centimetres and enough to take the lead with just two more rounds to jump.
Manyonga begins his run, powerfully striding down the runway, momentum gathering with each stride. He jumps, hangs and flies through the air, crashing back down to earth barely two metres from the edge of the pit. Sand flying, he can’t get out quick enough, bouncing up and out of the pit.
A purposeful glance behind him to a crater he’s created. A walk turns to a strut before a deathly stare turns to a beaming smile. He has just jumped 8 metres 37 centimetres, a nine centimetre improvement and a dagger to the hearts of the athletes in his wake. He gestures to the crowd, lifts his arms to the sky and draws his hands over his bib. Remember the name, Luvo Manyonga.
Minutes later he sits beside the track. Arms propping him up, the cameras stalking the champion elect. Just three men remain to jump. It is Jeff Henderson of the USA who takes his turn. As his pace accelerates down the runway and the man from Arkansas flies through the sky, Manyonga’s arms no longer prop him up. He lies back to the track, eyes to the sky knowing the American may well have stolen his Olympic gold. The time passes, the distance is measured and it’s 8 metres 38 centimetres. Just one centimetre better. Gold has eluded Manyonga.Embed from Getty Images
Fast forward one year and Manyonga is at a major championships once more. This time the Olympic stadium in Stratford, for the 2017 World Championships. Many things have changed. No longer is he an unfancied contender. He sits as the world leader and the African record holder, having jumped 8.65m in April, the longest in the world for almost a decade. If pressure sits heavy on the South African it is difficult to see.
A foul in the first round for Manyonga is followed by an 8.37m jump by his greatest challenger. Another American, this time by the name of Jarrion Lawson.
Manyonga has to respond. He gestures once more to the crowd. They return the favour. He stares down the runway once more, breaths and starts to run. His left leg hits the white board. He springs and both legs fly through the air, each pedalling in a mid-air fight for control. He lands, he turns and he lingers. Another crater and a casual saunter to his coach. He has jumped 8.48m and whilst he doesn’t yet know it, has become the world champion.Embed from Getty Images
Turning back the clock
A story like that isn’t an unusual one, indeed it is one we have heard many times before. The crowning of a champion a resilient response to a crushing defeat, one that in many ways make the championship won all the more befitting of its title. But for Luvo Manyonga that isn’t the least of it.
Manyonga’s journey in elite level athletics started many years before, first in 2010 by winning the World U20 Championships and then a year later with a fifth place in the senior edition in Daegu. The London Olympic Games were calling.Embed from Getty Images
Manyonga grew up in the Mbekweni township in the north of Paarl. Paarl itself sits around 50 kilometres to the northeast of Cape Town and is a town, like many, of contrasts. The nearby vineyards and manicured greens of Stellenbosch and Franschoek to its south. The Val de Vie estate with its world class golf course and spectacular polo club.
The World Bank estimates South Africa to be the most inequal society on the planet, according to their Gini coefficient. Wine, golf and polo aren’t pursuits available to those in Mbekweni and some have found other ways to spend their time.
An epidemic in the Western Cape
A study in the South African Medical Journal in 2016 interviewed around 10,000 Grade 8 students in the Western Cape, with a mean age of 14. 5% admitted to having used methamphetamine, or “tik” as it’s colliqually known. Of those 65% had used it within the last month. Use of the drug has been described as an epidemic and one readily available across the Cape. Various sources say a hit of the drug can cost as little as R 20 (equivalent of £1).
Being a world class athlete does not make one immune. Somewhere along the line use turned to addiction and aged twenty-one in April 2012 Manyonga put a self-inflicted hold on his Olympic ambitions, failing a test for methamphetamine. The South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport (SAIDS) saw his circumstances as mitigating enough to reduce a normal two-year ban to eighteen months.
Manyonga returned in December 2013 coaxed into a comeback by amongst others his coach at the time, Mario Smith. He competed once in Stellenbosch and then once more in Cape Town in early 2014. The target for his major return? The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in August.
Those Games never came, denied the opportunity by an administrative mistake despite holding the qualifying standard.
Things got worse for Manyonga, still in the midst of addiction. In June of that year, Smith was killed in a car accident. Manyonga dressed up for the funeral but as told in Luke Alfred’s poignant piece, “the Impossibility of Loving Luvo“, never made it. He missed the train, derailed by friends with whom he shared some of the drug.
Those events and the months that followed were very nearly the end of Luvo Manyonga, at least how the public now knows him. Leaving the sport, jetissoned by sponsors and rudderless, he didn’t jump again that year. He didn’t the next either. Addiction was a far greater challenge.
Charting Luvo’s return
Not all abandoned Luvo and one of them was John McGrath, an Irishman who had settled in the Western Cape, having initially come for a holiday in 2008. In 2013 he was coaching at a tug of war competition in Colombia and encountered representatives of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc). In it they talked about Luvo, McGrath himself running a gym in Paarl. A former strongman, he knew little of the world of athletics but sought out Manyonga.
Together they plotted Luvo’s way out, a slow imperfect one that featured many relapses. As Manyonga’s mother said to Donald McRae for the Irish Times back in 2016:
“he looked after Luvo when nobody but his family wanted him. When Luvo was on drugs, John took care of him.”Joyce Manyonga to Donald McRae
Whilst Manyongo contests McGrath’s influence, clearly, slowly they won others over too. After Alfred’s piece made national headlines Sascoc eventually moved Luvo out of Mbekweni and into Pretoria. They found him a new coach in Neil Cornelius and Manyonga’s Olympic and World Championship story was written. The comeback was complete. The movie had its final chapter.
Such a brief summary will never do justice to Luvo Manyonga’s story and such picture-postcard endings never tell the truth of what is a constant battle. As he attested to McRae back then:
“I will be a recovering addict the rest of my life and, as a (former) user there are so many triggers there”.
One such trigger you can attest is a global pandemic.
Back at square one
In 2021 here we are, gearing for an Olympic Games where Manyonga was to claim gold, banish the heartache of Rio and inspire millions with the ultimate victory over his demons. Instead he is serving a four year ban for failing to comply on three occassions with the anti-doping whereabouts regime.
It is the culmination of fears that have abounded ever since being fined for failing to comply with South African COVID-19 regulations. Not because of any stance on the pandemic but because of where the arrest took place, Stellenbosch. After years in Pretoria and then Port Elizabeth, Manyonga had returned west.
Few would deny Manyonga takes drugs, but perhaps fewer would say these are in anyway performance enhancing.
His ban due to expire in December 2024, a year in which Luvo will turn thirty-three, Manyonga will be thirty-seven at the next available Olympic Games.
Manyonga’s memory in elite level athletics will be as the man with the beaming smile that lit up Rio and that reached the top one year later. His memory outside it, that is still one he has the power to write himself. Remember the name? Don’t worry Luvo, we will struggle to forget.
An Olympic title may not be possible but that is an irrelevance and one few fans want for him. Health and happiness are much fonder prizes. It would a fitting reward for those two August nights where the South African gave us so much. It is only right he receives something in return.
Featured image “Team SA arrives from the Rio Olympics, 23 Aug 2016” by GovernmentZA is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0