In 2008 Lebogang Shange was eking out a living in Orange Farm on the southern outskirts of Jo’burg, wondering miserably about his future. An orphan, he could barely read, hardly write and didn’t have a driver’s licence. He had no matric and no prospects. Proverbially he lived in a hole.
Absent-mindedly he turned on the television and watched, spellbound, as a goofy Australian called Jared Tallent walked out of nowhere to take the bronze medal in the 20km race-walking event at the Beijing Olympics. Without being able to explain why, Shange had found his calling.
“I used to be lazy, but after seeing Jared I just took myself out to the Chris Hani Stadium [in Orange Farm] and walked and walked,” he said by phone this week.
“After that people started to hear about me and believe in me. Wayne Snyman [another talented young walker who has qualified for the 20km event in Rio] and other people started to get involved. Things just got bigger.”
Walking was everything to Shange – flight, meditation, discipline, work. He had a pair of ankle-high Converse basketball sneakers and the more he walked the more worn-out and less white they became. Soon he was entering local races and before long he was winning them – not bad for a young sportsman whose sole claim to fame until then had been to play as a vertically challenged central defender in one of Orange Farm’s many scratch football teams.
Sometimes his race-walking exploits brought cash prizes and, after a few years, he was able to replace his battered size seven sneakers with footwear befitting a young man with a new-found spring in his step. By his latest estimates, he says, he puts his trainer and sneaker collection at 35.
Although Tallent, the celery stick-thin Aussie, won gold in both the 20km and 50km races at the 2012 London Olympics, it took Shange slightly longer to make his mark. According to many, however, last year was his breakthrough season. He came 11th in the World Championships in Beijing and, for the second successive year, came first in the African Championships.
With a highly creditable second place in the Australian Championships in Adelaide in February (beating his coach Chris Britz’s South African 20km record in the process) under his belt, Shange flew off to a training camp in Spain on Monday night.
In Grenada, he will walk with a group of Spanish, Australian and Irish walkers before competing in the IAAF’s World Race Walking Team Championships in Rome in early May.
Britz has warned that one of the major pitfalls between now and the Olympics is possible exhaustion. It’s a balancing act, but Shange must strive to drift out of the pre-Rio spotlight and keep his legs fresh after a long domestic summer season.
With what some have described as a slightly unorthodox walking style, and having started the sport comparatively late in life, Shange has had to walk from the margins to reach the middle. Although he has mellowed, he is still very much his own man and can occasionally be prickly.
This much was confirmed when he was asked about keeping to a diet at the University of Pretoria’s High Performance Centre [HPC], where he lives and trains thanks to the intervention of an anonymous benefactor with deep pockets. “I’m not good at keeping diets,” he says. “The HPC always want to put me on diets.”
The maverick tendencies certainly persist – he believes in God, he tells me, but doesn’t attend church – but there has been a softening now that his day-to-day living and travel expenses are taken care of.
“There used to be trust issues, particularly with white males,” says someone in the broader community, although Britz, the man who qualified for the Atlanta Olympics but whose application was quashed by the National Olympic Committee of South Africa at the last minute, probably puts it best: “From an emotional point of view, Lebogang isn’t Chris Britz, if you get me. I started out as a coach by being pretty rigid. That has all changed now.”
Shange is one of four race walkers – the others being Marc Mundell, Snyman and Anel Oosthuizen – who have qualified for Rio. It adds up to an unlikely renaissance in a sport in which records stood for tens of years and very little came after the Britz and Stanley Valentine generation after they retired in the middle and late 1990s.
At 33, Britz knew that, if he didn’t crack the nod for Atlanta he would be too old to qualify for Sydney. Like others in those years, he turned away from the sport before slowly returning not only to pass on his technical know-how but also to learn and grow as a coach.
South African athletics isn’t confined, of course, to race walking. In athletes such as Caster Semenya, Wayde van Niekerk and Anaso Jobodwana there is a barn-storming generation of new and newish talent who might just make this South Africa’s most glorious Olympics yet.
The opinions of the cognoscenti are divided, with some saying it might all go pear-shaped but, still, the groundswell of optimism can be felt. Britz, for one, is hopeful.
“I grew up close to the RAU [Rand Afrikaans University] track and used to sneak under the fence to watch Danie Malan and Marcello Fiasconaro because I couldn’t afford a ticket. I had posters of Seb Coe on my wall and lived for athletics. I think we might be getting close to those days again.”