Runner Mbulaeni Mulaudzi retires without fanfare

South African athletes won the men's and women's 800m track events at the 2009 International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in Berlin.

Caster Semenya was the centre of public, government and media attention when the team arrived back at OR Tambo International Airport, after the IAAF doubted her gender. But not much was written or said about Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, who won the men's event. 

The 33-year-old returned to his roots in Limpopo in May, his exit from the athletics scene as quiet as the man himself and perhaps as unpublicised as the many successes he notched up during his career: a silver medal at the Olympics (2004), gold (2009) and bronze (2003) at the IAAF World Championships, gold (2004) and silver (2006 and 2008) at the World Indoor Championships, gold (2002) at the Commonwealth Games, and silver (2000) and bronze (2002) at the African Championships.

JP van der Merwe, who coached Mulaudzi from 2004 to 2009, attributed the athlete's triumphs to his tough mental attitude. "He was probably one of the toughest, most mentally focused athletes around – that's what made him so great."

Ian Harries, who has coached middle and long-distance runners for more than 46 years, coached Mulaudzi from 2000 to 2005. "Though not the South African record holder for his event, he [Mulaudzi] is regarded by many as our greatest 800m runner," says Harries. 

"He was very competitive, aggressive and a very tactically aware runner who thrived best over a fast race. He had incredible speed-strength endurance. Despite his somewhat shy exterior and being wary of too much media exposure I, personally, think of him as a true legend of the event," says Harries.

A different mentality
Hezekiel Sepeng, a good friend of Mulaudzi's who preceded him as the South African king of the 800m event, agrees. "He was special compared with other athletes – his mentality was different. He believed in winning. He didn't say, ‘I'll just go in there and come second' – for him winning was important."

But Van der Merwe lamented the fact that Mulaudzi did not receive the recognition he deserved. "He is an unsung legend – it's really sad. He was a young black athlete with clean and sober habits, and he emerged as a role model at a time when the country really needed role models. But he's going to be forgotten, and in five years' time when he walks down a street nobody will recognise him."

Van der Merwe has a clear recollection of the Berlin victory. 

"He had been out of shape but he trained very hard before the race. 

"Everybody had forgotten about him; he had been very lucky to reach the final. But when he lined up there, we saw such a superb situation unfolding."

Athletics coach Richard Mayer wrote of Mulaudzi's victory in the 2010 South African Athletics Annual: "He ran the boldest and most courageous 800m race possibly ever seen at Olympic and World Championship level, leading from start to finish to pull off an improbable victory.

"One would have to search hard in the annals of Olympic and World Championship history to find a men's 800m gold medallist who has led from start to finish. Even Alberto Juantorena's commanding run in the 800m final at the 1976 Montreal Olympics cannot claim this distinction as he was briefly overtaken at the halfway mark."

Deflected attention
Van der Merwe says Mulaudzi didn't attract much attention when he returned to South Africa. "When we arrived everyone was so focused on what had happened with Caster Semenya that his achievement was almost completely ignored.

"He never received the cash incentives he had been promised, big sponsorships didn't come his way, he was not even nominated for a presidential award. There's not an athlete in South Africa that has spent such a long time in his sport and has given his country so much honour who has received such little recognition.  I think that's part of the reason why he's retired so early."

Mulaudzi told the Mail & Guardian that it was injury that had forced him to retire.    

"From July 2010, I've been battling with my Achilles [tendon]; it's been very painful and sore. It was very difficult to even train properly from then until May, when I retired," he said.

"If I trained hard one day, I had to take a rest the next day. I realised that it was impossible to go on until I was 35, as I had planned to do."

Olympic dream
Mulaudzi started running as a grade two pupil and had an aptitude for most sports, including football. A teacher who recognised his talent encouraged him to turn his focus to athletics when he was 12 years old.

"As a young man I dreamed about being in the Olympics," he said. 

He paid tribute to his family for assisting him in realising that dream in style. "My mother and father and sisters were always behind me, guiding me."

Dedication and humility are the true hallmarks of a successful athlete, he said.

"Some people will say that athletes who come from Limpopo suffer a lot and that's why they do so well. But I don't think of it like that. I think success comes from what you want in life. The most important thing is to be very disciplined and be very humble and listen to your parents and your coach." 

After taking some time out to relax, he intends returning to athletics, this time as a coach at a rural school.

"These kids don't have people looking after them in the long term. I'm going to look after a few guys who are interested in athletics, start coaching them and making them strong. I know it's going to make a difference."

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