Mpumelelo Mhlongo lived most of his life unaware that he had a disability. He always knew his club foot was technically a deformity, but at no stage was it ever a hindrance to anything he wanted to do.
Disabled athletes, to his mind, were those guys he saw on TV: the blade runners, wheelchair racers and visually impaired competitors. They didn’t look like him. Nor did any of them, from what he could tell, have a lower limb deficiency similar to his.
Mhlongo happily spent his childhood excelling at able-bodied sport. Football, rugby, cricket: he made all the A-teams with ease, usually punching above his age group.
It wasn’t until 2009, when he was hit by an injury that never really healed, that it became apparent he had an inherent disadvantage when competing. Yet it would still take another five years until he was urged to classify himself as a para-athlete.
“It was through trying to get fit for soccer again in university, and I joined the track and field team of UCT,” Mhlongo explains. “I was at one of the meets, just trying to do my high jump — I’m a big fan of high jump, it was my second love after soccer. Then a guy came up to me and he was like, what’s wrong with your leg? And I said, ‘Uh, I don’t know, what’s wrong with yours?’
“He said: ‘It looks like you could actually be classified as a Paralympian. So when are you looking to go on that journey? Because people like you can help grow the sport, and become an influence for other people who are living with a disability. And that can succeed through sports, and then hopefully transfer into academics or business or whatever other means.’ ”
And so Mhlongo took the first few tentative steps on the path this stranger had set him on. He took the classification details offered to him and followed up. A few painless processes later, and, just like that, he was a para-athlete.
Forging a path
It’s been roughly five years since that seminal moment in Mhlongo’s life. Together with school friend and business partner Zain Bana, he is in Johannesburg to meet with prospective clients. Their start-up, Steady State, aims to utilise new and emerging IT solutions to improve healthcare delivery and access.
Fresh from their meetings, a dapper Mhlongo walks the Mail & Guardian through his journey. There’s a lot to tell.
By 2015 he had earned a spot on the South African plane to the World Championships in Doha, where he competed in the 100m, long jump and high jump events. A year later it was off to the Paralympic Games, followed by another appearance at the World Champs.
And then the world records began to fall. Mhlongo has broken two in his T44 class [athletes who have a single below-the-knee amputation or those who have moderately reduced function in one or both legs] this year — the 200m in March and long jump in June.
“To be honest, the 200m world record was a bit of a shock,” the affable sprinter, also now a chemical engineering PhD student, admits. “We decided we were going to go to the national championships as a test to see how fit we were. I’d just been injured, just come back, things weren’t going right.
“It was the first event of the competition. I came out and all I did was run my heart out. When I crossed over the line, I looked at the board and I said, ‘No, there must be a timing error.’ I waited for the official results and they said no, you’ve just gotten the world record and I was the first T44 athlete to go under 24 seconds.
“Then the long jump old record, we really were working towards jumping over seven metres — also the first T44 athlete to do that — so that didn’t come as a surprise. But the way in which it happened was me having to measure up to the World Champs bronze medalist Jean-Baptiste [Alaize] from France. And you know, we did that. So we showed a lot of heart, of grit, and we take that into the next competition.”
Arriving at this point has taken as much cunning as it has hard work. It goes back to what Mhlongo learnt about himself in 2009: His disability doesn’t affect his ability to compete, but rather his ability to prepare. He simply cannot push himself to the extent that professional athletes generally do. Failing to properly taper off a training session will leave him unable to walk for three days.
Given that his body only has a finite amount of energy to offer up each day, “efficiency” becomes less of a buzzword and more of a survival tool.
Mhlongo acknowledges that he and his team have not always struck the right balance — injuries along the way have, for instance, forced him to give up his beloved high jump — but the records suggest they’re getting there.
He’s chasing a third world record — by year’s end he hopes to have the world’s fastest 100m time, a feat his team is actively preparing for.
“The 100m has been an interesting one; we’ve tried to be a lot more strategic. We decided we’re going to reduce the amount of steps that I take and then add more cadence and power.
“In training I’ve run the world record, but a lot of world records are broken at training. This is what happens in competition. And I think now all that’s left is to get a bit more speed in the system. And with that speed, hopefully it translates into the performances we’ve seen in our training.”
Heroes don’t wear capes
It’s unlikely you would have heard much of a hullabaloo when Mhlongo broke those first two records. Para-athletics remains frustratingly low on the radar of both the media and public.
Historically South Africa has cherry-picked Paralympians to cherish and celebrate. There have been two notable names: Natalie du Toit and Oscar Pistorious.
Why have we struggled to embrace our para-athletes, outside of the Paralympics? Surely gold medals and world records speak loudly enough to reach us all?
Mhlongo reckons it’s as much the athletes’ responsibility to change that as anyone else’s: “There’s equally, I’ll even say more impressive CVs in the Paralympic space [than Pistorious’s]”, he says. “Oscar wasn’t even the first in his class. Alan [Oliveira] used to beat him. He was impressive in the sense that he competed with the able-bodied athletes, but he couldn’t beat people in his class in the Paralympic space. So it goes back again to coverage, and people like Hilton Langenhoven have been there for years and aeons. I mean, Charl du Toit has two world records to his name. So they’re there. But they are silent. And with that silence, you know, how do they expect you to know them and also then to chase after them?
“And I think if we can change that mindset, it’ll be a lot easier for people to say ‘ja of course’ … because Caster [Semenya] is everywhere. Akani [Simbine] is also everywhere. You know Wayde [van Niekerk] blew up internationally before he ever blew up in South Africa. That’s also trying to bridge that gap to say, you can’t wait for people to get to know you, you have to actually be out there and sharing your story.”
Of course there isn’t a South African alive who doesn’t know how Pistorious’s Icarian tale ended.
Before his fall, his athletic prowess had become incidental. Thanks to a sustained media and marketing push, the blade runner was held aloft as a bona fide inspiration. He became the golden boy of sport in the country — the archetype of an anything-is-possible attitude.
Whichever way you cut it, there’s no denying that he became a role model to a great number of people. The consequences of his actions are thus still being felt today.
“I came into the Paralympics space after Oscar, so I only had more of the residual effect,” Mhlongo says. “But even to this day, it’s a name you can’t talk about in Team South Africa. Soon as you say Oscar, everyone’s like ‘No, shut up, what the hell are you saying?’ And that is one of the problems — because if you don’t speak about Oscar, nobody’s going to get over what happened.”
It’s easy to forget just what it means to see people on the TV that inspire you in one way or another. That’s why Mhlongo launched his Mpumi2020 campaign. In the lead-up to the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, the sprinter wants to use his success to shine a light on those suffering in silence due to a disability.
Could Mhlongo be the role model we need? Forget the Paralympic space, is this the athlete the next generation of aspiring sprinters will look to? Perhaps, in our idolisation of one star after the next, we’ve been looking at the whole thing backwards.
“I personally believe that the role models should be people you know, your little brother or whoever is in your immediate community,” Mhlongo says. “We need to redefine success. We look at the Warren Buffetts, the Elon Musks and we say, ‘Ah that’s what we want to be’. But somebody who’s taken themselves from the farms, and is now working in a corporate as a secretary, has massively — just on a percentage facts, figures basis — improved their lives and the lives of the people that are around them. And they also need to be applauded as role models in our society.”