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17 August 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 11:09am

How South Africa’s Luvo Manyonga beat crystal meth to win an Olympic medal

The long jumper had help from a former Coney Island strongman in overcoming his addiction problems to make it to the Rio Olympics.

By Luke Alfred

In most ways, Luvo Manyonga is touchingly similar to the other young men of his age who haunt the street corners of Mbekweni township outside Paarl in South Africa’s Western Cape. Like them, he is ill-educated, comes from a broken home, and has fought an intermittent battle with crystal meth, a ubiquitous township drug called “tik”, “crank” or “tjoef” in South Africa.

Yet in one crucial respect, Manyonga, whose family made the trek to Mbekweni from the Eastern Cape in search of a better life when he was younger, is not like his Mbekweni homeboys at all. Unlike them, he can jump. He can jump with or without shoes, indoors or out; he can hurdle parked cars and pre-cast concrete walls. He jumps for fun and jumps to impress. Jumping is so much a part of his chemistry that he might as well be breathing. He was born to jump, say those close to him.

Manyonga jumps with charm and easy grace. On Saturday night in Rio he won the silver medal in the men’s Olympic long jump, beaten into second place by the USA’s Jeff Henderson by a single centimetre. “I had the gold medal and that guy [Henderson] snatched it away from me,” said Manyonga with a rueful smile.

In 2010, Manyonga and Wayde van Niekerk were part of the South African youth team at the World Junior Championships in Moncton, Canada. Manyonga won gold in Moncton, doing so almost carelessly, while Van Niekerk (who had yet to graduate to the 400m) could only muster fourth place in the 200m finals. The following year, Manyonga placed fifth in the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea; suddenly the world’s athletics cognoscenti sat up and took notice.

The prize money Manyonga won in Daegu cursed him and his family, initiating a hellish ride of excess and waste. Manyonga didn’t go to the London Olympics the following year and by the time of 2014’s Glasgow Commonwealth Games he’d already been banned by the South African athletics authorities for failing a drugs test. His situation was so desperate – and he was deemed such a public relations time bomb – that Nike’s local office weren’t even prepared to toss him a pair of spikes. His career had nosedived before it had ever really begun.

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The story of Manyonga’s plight was heard by Irish strongman and power-lifter, John McGrath, who had recently set up a gym on the sunless outskirts of Paarl. The Irishman and Coney Island strongman performer liked a yarn and he liked a dare. He went in search of Manyonga, driving through Mbekweni’s puddles and past its malnourished dogs – called braks in South Africa – in search of this kid he’d been told jumped like the wind. Eventually McGrath found Manyonga, charming him with his soft Irish burr.

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Manyonga began to train at McGrath’s gym but progress was slow. Sometimes he went walkabout. The tik beckoned. McGrath would go ballistic with frustration and worry. It didn’t help that in 2014, Mario Smith, Manyonga’s much-loved coach, died in a car accident close to Stellenbosch, not far away from Paarl. Manyonga dodged Smith’s memorial service because he was getting high with his buddies and missed his train. In his darkest moments, McGrath felt that Manyonga was never going to reclaim his former glories. Tik was going to destroy him; he was going to die, he was just another walking township statistic.

Eventually, by calling in a favour here and bending an ear there, McGrath and the South African Olympic swimmer, Ryk Neethling, hatched a plan. They’d ship Manyonga to Cuba, with its illustrious tradition of long-jumping. But the Cuba ruse didn’t work out. There were money and visa and responsibility problems. They were stuck back at square one.

Suddenly, though, a glimmer of light. The High Performance Centre (HPC) at the University of Pretoria could house him, feed him and coach him. Serendipitously, Manyonga found himself boarding in the same HPC house as Sizwe Ndlovu, a member of the lightweight coxless fours who had won rowing gold at the London Olympics. The two bonded, Ndlovu lighting up Manyonga’s eyes with Olympic tales, what he had seen in London and what he had done.

Ndlovu didn’t make the fours boat to Rio but he’d lit the fire. Manyonga trained well, grew stronger and snuck into the final in Rio with the fifth-longest jump. Eventually he lost the final by a feather’s width. He returned to South Africa on Tuesday afternoon, a hero. His mother hasn’t been able to go to work this week because her front door has been blockaded by well-wishers, journalists, television crews and kansvatters (a pejorative Afrikaans word here in South Africa for chance-takers).

There are likely to be a few more of them in the months to come.