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The Botswanan sensation with 400-metre Olympic dreams

Ozy logo Ozy 2018-07-10 Nick Dall

a person on a court © Shaun Botterill/Getty He was only there to watch. But after some ribbing from a mentor, Baboloki Thebe laced up his track shoes at Botswana’s Private Tertiary Institutions Association championships (the PTIA Games) in March 2016. He stepped to the starting line for the 400 meters, a distance in which he had never before competed. And he flew. Thebe didn’t just win the race and dust two world-class 400-meter athletes, but he also ran fast enough to qualify for the Rio Olympics.

Now 21, Thebe is the most enticing talent in a trio of superstar runners making the southern African nation of 2 million one of the world’s 400-meter hotbeds. Thebe stumbled through Rio, plagued by injury. But he made up for it with a fourth-place finish in the 400 meters at the 2017 World Championships in London and has since gone on to record a personal best of 44.02 seconds — making him the 20th-fastest man over the distance, ever. “The world hasn’t seen the real Baboloki Thebe yet,” warns his coach, Mogomotsi Otsetswe.

After one look at Thebe’s lean physique and hypnotic stride, [his coach] knew that the short-sprint specialist was best suited to the 400, where he’d be less likely to succumb to injury.

As a kid, Thebe had what he calls a “poor upbringing” in the tiny subsistence-farming village of Ramonaka, where he excelled on the soccer field. Anastacia Sibanda, a sports writer and the unofficial mentor who nudged Thebe into running the 400 at the PTIA Games, reckons Thebe could have achieved national colours in soccer, but fate had other ideas. A teacher who had noticed his uncanny speed sent him to the 2013 national school championships, where he won bronze in the 200 meters. His breakthrough came at the 2014 African Youth Games in Botswana’s capital city of Gaborone, where he claimed gold in the 200 meters and broke the 21-second barrier.

In that same year, Thebe teamed up with both Otsetswe, who instantly recognized his “huge natural talent,” and Sibanda, who “felt almost sorry” for the cripplingly shy young man who found it “very difficult to speak freely.” While Otsetswe focused on the track, Sibanda helped Thebe deal with the “inevitable” media spotlight. (She’s done a good job: Although no showman, Thebe gave plenty of detailed insights in our interview.)

Otsetswe’s long list of former protégés includes Nijel Amos, the third-fastest 800-meter runner in history, and Amantle Montsho, the 400-meter world champion in 2011. After one look at Thebe’s lean physique and hypnotic stride, he knew that the short-sprint specialist was best suited to the 400, where he’d be less likely to succumb to injury. Instead of breaking the news to his athlete immediately, Otsetswe let him carry on with the 200 in order to improve his speed and coordination. When Otsetswe eventually broached the topic, Thebe was reluctant to “run a full lap,” but the PTIA Games performance eliminated any doubts.

When training, Otsetswe says Thebe is a self-starter, “the kind of athlete any coach would love to have.” Sibanda lauds his focus, as Thebe “doesn’t go out at night like other boys his age.” The athlete declares his favourite pastimes as playing FIFA on his PlayStation 2 and watching reruns of old 400-meter races. He’s built his family the shell of “a really big house,” which he’ll finish when prize money allows.

The only thing standing in the way of him finishing the house, it seems, is injury — especially a left-quad tear that has given him intermittent problems ever since the 2016 Olympics and has marred his times this year. Thebe admits it is a “mental issue” that he “always thinks about” when running. Not much concerned, Otsetswe believes Thebe’s switch to running the 400 exclusively, coupled with a carefully considered training program and a reduced race load, will see the athlete challenging the 44-second mark toward the end of this year.

The other two members of Botswana’s world-class 400-meter crew are Isaac Makwala, 32, who has broken 44 seconds, and Karabo Sibanda, 20, who finished fifth in Rio with a 44.25. Otsetswe, who also coaches Sibanda, admits that it is “difficult to tell who is going to be the greatest,” and he praises Sibanda as a “very comfortable runner” with an elegant stride. He says Thebe’s history with shorter sprints is helpful, while Sibanda could become a great 800-meter runner.

South African athletics journalist Ockert de Villiers says that the 400 is a “funny event” where athletes can sometimes record a fast time out of nowhere — such as when 20-year-old Michael Norman ran a 43.61, an American collegiate record, in June. While Thebe’s slowish times of late have been “strange,” de Villiers says more important are runners’ progressions, who they beat and how they perform on the big stage. “But if his coach says he’s the real deal,” he concludes, “I’d listen.”

Otsetswe hopes that his two young stars will learn lessons from their predecessors and remain in Botswana. Amos, the 800-meter wunderkind, has never reached his potential since relocating to Oregon; Makwala’s performances dipped during a stint in Jamaica before picking up again back home and Montsho was pinched for doping while based in Ivory Coast. The hometown support structure is what makes the difference, the coach says.

Thebe, who has no plans to move abroad despite being really taken with New York City on a recent trip, has clear goals. He’d like to break the 44-second barrier this season, and he’s desperate for a podium finish at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Can he challenge irrepressible Olympic gold medalist and world record-holder Wayde van Niekerk? “Not now,” he says.

His coach agrees, but adds that if Thebe “can focus and stay injury-free, he is the one I can use to challenge the world record in three or four years.” And he won’t need to be coaxed from the stands.

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