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Josia Thugwane Getty
04 Aug 1996
Atlanta 1996 , IOC News , Athletics

Thugwane wins marathon by a whisker

Two things that made the outcome of the men's marathon in Atlanta impossibly hard to predict. First, there were the hot and humid conditions. Despite an early morning start the athletes still found themselves completing the race in temperatures above 25 degrees.

But the other variable was the lack of a clear favourite. Indeed, for most of the race no runner seemed to want to take the initiative. Even after the 30km mark the leading pack was closely wedged together, with all of the runners sizing each other up and looking for signs of weakness, waiting for the right moment to attack, but also wary of the growing heat and humidity.

Among their number was South Africa's Josia Thugwane, a 25-year-old who was competing at his first Olympic Games. Thugwane had endured a tough rise to the top, working since the age of nine and never learning to read or write. When he discovered a talent for distance running, he had to combine his training with a job at a mine, but still managed to win a place in the South African Olympic team after winning the national marathon title. Two weeks after that, he survived a terrifying attack when his car was stolen at gunpoint and a bullet from the gun of his attackers grazed his chin. Somehow, he managed to remain focused on his training, continuing to improve his times and hone his tactics.

Thugwane Wins Marathon By A Whisker IOC

Thugwane’s bravery and determination found their reward in Atlanta where he found himself in the leading pack. When he decided to launch a break with just over 10km to go, only two other runners could match the pace – the Republic of Korea's Lee Bong-ju and Kenya’s Eric Wainaina. For the last 10km of the race, it was clear that these three would share the medals. But who would get the gold?

That question remained in the balance until the very last few seconds. Thugwane put in a sprint, but the others caught him up. Then he sprinted ahead again, surging 25m clear, and Lee moved into second, chasing hard. The three runners all came into the stadium separated by less than 10 seconds, but it was Thugwane who held the lead. He pushed all the way to the line, and crossed it just three seconds ahead of Lee, with Wainaina a further five second behind in third in what was the closest finish in the modern history of the Olympic marathon.

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