Twenty-five years ago, on April 16 1988, iconic South African athlete Matthews “Loop en Val” Motshwarateu won the biggest victory of his career. In beating the Mexican-born runner, Arturo Barrios, at the Crescent City Classic 10km road race in New Orleans, Motshwarateu achieved what many thought was impossible. This was because Barrios had been unbeaten in 10km races in America for more two years and had an aura of invincibility.
Victor Ngubene, the first black athlete to win a national junior title, was on an athletics scholarship in the United States at the time. He recalls: “When Matthews ran against Barrios in 1988, the entire American running community believed Barrios was unbeatable.”
Apart from being an outstanding international performance by a South African athlete in the late 1980s, when international competition was hard to come by because of the anti-apartheid sports boycott, Motshwarateu’s victory belonged to an era when the performance of South African middle- and long-distance athletes suggested that they could challenge and at times beat the world’s best.
In the intervening 25 years and through a combination of factors, South African distance running has collapsed to such an extent that, with only the rare exception, our athletes are completely uncompetitive against the best in the world.
Motshwarateu’s sensational but unheralded victory over Barrios has a special significance for me because it was the topic of conversation the first time I talked to Motshwarateu two years later. I was intrigued by his account of the race, because Barrios has subsequently become the 10km world-record holder. I had admired Motshwarateu since he first came to my attention in my boyhood when he rose to national prominence after breaking Ewald Bonzet’s South African 5000m record in 1978. In my 11-year-old imagination, he was a lonely figure battling against the odds.
My initial impression was entirely accurate. Motshwarateu was charismatic and charming, but he was also a lonely and awkward man, who overcame the challenges of his acutely deprived background through sheer force of will. Twelve years since his death in Soweto, where he was born, Motshwarateu’s gift to young South Africans who would emulate him is his self-belief and his remorseless will to win.
His 1988 race showed these qualities in abundance. When he lined up against Barrios and a world-class field in New Orleans in that year, Motshwarateu had not been an international force since 1982, when a knee injury while on an athletics scholarship at the University of Texas in El Paso derailed a stellar career. In 1980 he had set a new 10km world record in Purchase in the US and won the US universities NCAA cross-country title, beating Olympic silver 5000m medallist Suleiman Nyambui.
Motshwarateu loved America and was keen to take advantage of the opportunities it offered him as a person and as an athlete, compared with the restrictions of apartheid South Africa. On returning to South Africa in 1986 at the age of 27, he struggled to adapt and settle down. Then, in 1988, with the assistance of the Botswana Athletics Federation, his manager, Paul Coetzer, arranged for him to circumvent the sports boycott by competing for Botswana.
In the build-up to the New Orleans race, Motshwarateu was assured by his Tanzanian athletics friends, Suleiman Nyambui and Filbert Bayi, that he had no chance of beating Barrios. He responded with characteristic impatience: “You guys must get your heads right!” Motivated by the opportunity to compete in the US again, he trained with the same intensity he had as a young man eager to put his dark memories of the Soweto uprising behind him.
He showed his intentions from the start, going out hard and taking an early lead. When Barrios caught him at 5km, he allowed him to pass, but 1.5km from the finish, he stormed to the line to win in 28:54, beating Barrios by an impressive 24 seconds and Kenyan Yobes Ondieki by a mammoth 58 seconds. The calibre of Motshwarateu’s opposition is demonstrated by the fact that not only Barrios, but also Ondieki, went on to set world 10km records.
Although Motshwarateu had further athletic success, winning a national cross country and 10km title, when South Africa returned to international competition he was 33 and well past his best.
His inability to achieve his full potential as an athlete in the apartheid era and his premature death after being shot at the age of 43 follow an all too familiar tragic South African narrative. But despite his early death, Motshwarateu was in no way a tragic figure. He radiated pride and dignity and his ebullient personality gave his fellow black athletes enormous confidence.
In an era when the vast majority of South African youth face daunting challenges and a bleak and uncertain future, Motshwarateu is an inspirational figure because, despite his undeniable human vulnerability, most obvious in his awkward running style, and a sizeable but not outrageous talent, he showed the great things that can be achieved when self-belief combines with self-discipline.
Richard Mayer is the author of The Three Matthews, a book about Matthews Motshwarateu, Matthews Batswadi and Matthews Temane