Why we should talk about Luvo

Over the recent past while I heard the whispers. Most of the time what a high-profile athlete does in their private time has nothing to do with us. Except when it’s someone that we care for deeply. Then we should be talking about it. It’s okay to talk, writes GARY LEMKE.

So, let’s talk about Luvo Manyonga. My heart sank when I heard last week that the 29-year-old had been charged for drinking in public in a Stellenbosch township, fined R2 500 for breaching Disaster Management Act restrictions. The official police notice cited a ‘failure to confine himself in his place of residence and public drinking’.

For a number of months I’d heard that one of the most gifted athletes this country has produced had found himself in the wrong company again. And it was worrying.

You have to know Manyonga’s back story to understand why it’s a big deal. Figuratively speaking, it was a slap on the wrist. So what? Drinking in a public space during level 4 lockdown. But it’s bigger than that. The fear is that Manyonga is falling off life’s fragile precipice again.

That’s not too dramatic a statement. If it is – and only Manyonga will know – then accept it because we care, deeply.

Four years ago, August 2016, Manyonga sat with the media the morning after winning the silver medal in the long jump at the Rio Olympics. He’d come within 1cm of gold medallist Jeff Henderson of the USA. But for the South African it was an emotional moment. He’d fought off the demons and lived to tell the story.

As a 19-year-old he’d won the 2011 World Junior Championships before succumbing to the temptation of recreational drugs supplied by nefarious individuals. Unsurprisingly, in 2012 he tested positive for crystal meth (Tik) and served an 18-month ban from athletics. His coach and friend, Mario Smith, was killed in a car accident in 2014. It was In 2015 he moved up to Pretoria to continue his career and the discipline, guidance and world-class facilities helped him put his life back on track.

‘There were thousands of “demons” on my journey from 2012, but they didn’t catch me,’ Manyonga told us proudly in 2016 after turning his life around and taking Olympic silver. ’Last night I didn’t see a gold medal, I actually tasted it. But then the guy from the US came and took it from my hand, but that’s ok, that’s what competition is. Next year though I will deliver gold at the World Championships in London,’ he said.

Which is exactly what he did, first setting a South African record 8.65m and then being crowned world champion in London in 2017, with a leap of 8.48m. In Rio, he’d earned silver with 8.37m.

In Rio four years ago, Manyonga praised the influence of then SASCOC president Gideon Sam. ‘Gideon came all the way down to Cape Town, then to Paarl and then to Mbekweni and he believed in me. I am a living example of that it’s possible from where I was to where I am today. Thousands of people people look up to me, and I’m [hopefully] a motivation to small kids. I like to tell people from the township that everything is possible with God’s help. I tell them to try to reach far.’

Flanking him was Fikile Mbalula, the-then Minister of Sport: ‘Sport changes lives,’ he said. ‘We need to invest in sport and get more role models. The townships have dried up with role models. Thanks to Gideon and SASCOC for supporting this young star. Mbekweni, Paarl, will never be the same. We stand with their hero.’

Sam had the final word. ‘Luvo’s demons in our culture are real. Many come from broken homes, dysfunctional homes, those are the demons that are holding us back. It’s more than sport, it’s about helping that person, it’s a long journey. Many people made a contribution to change Luvo’s life. And if the opportunity arises we must all go out there and find another Luvo.’

Last September Manyonga defended his world long jump title in Doha but could only finish fourth, with a leap of 8.28m. However, 2020 was going to be his year.

The Olympics come in four-year cycles and Tokyo would be the stage for him to be crowned Olympic champion after coming up 1m short in Rio. At the beginning of 2020 he had expressed his confidence of succeeding in Tokyo. ‘Because of the intensity of the long jump at the moment, I know there is a lot of hard work that needs to be done before Tokyo, but I let that drive me every day and I believe I will be ready, come the Games, to jump my best.

‘This year I will improve my national record (8.65m) and 2020 might be the year I break the world record (8.95m).’

Covid-19 has put paid to Tokyo 2020 but there’s always 2021. Manyonga would ordinarily not have been affected by the year-long postponement, but his latest misdemeanour raises concerns that the demons are circling again. And we need to do whatever we can, from an athletics and Olympic community, to make sure they are kept away from him. Because we care. And because life matters more than any athletics medal or record.

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