Amantle Montsho’s life and athletics career has played out like a Greek tragedy. It is a classic rag to riches story that would make a staggering biography novel.
To understand Montsho you would have to go back to her hometown of Maun in the Ngamiland district, northwestern Botswana. It is in the sandy tourist attraction town that Montsho crafted her storybook to international athletics career that saw her virtually beating the best in the world. She took on all comers, whether they be from Jamaica, America or United Kingdom. The young girl from the dusty streets of Maun beat them all at international stages. Montsho’s finest hour was winning gold in a 400m-sprint race at the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth games in India with an impressive 50.10 sec. Montsho, a statuesque, physical specimen would go on to win the IAAF Diamond league in 2012 and 2013.
Before winning the 2013 IAAF Samsung diamond league title, Montsho together with other members of Team Botswana competed in the London 2012 summer Olympic where the athlete, in her prime at the time, failed to win an Olympic medal despite coming in 4th position with the time of 49.75sec. It seemed Montsho was coming short when it mattered the most; her confidence seemed to be lagging somehow, maybe a deep-rooted connection to her humble origins and sudden fame. The 2012 London Olympic games signalled the decline of Botswana’s national treasure, and the rise of another icon Nijel Amos who seized the opportunity and won a silver medal eclipsing Montsho in the process.
The year 2013 was an eventful one for the athlete. She fell short of winning a high profile Moscow World Championship race when her adversary Christine Ohuruogo of Britain beat the local athlete by four thousandth of a second. Ohuruogo famously dipped her head while Montsho remained upright. The loss was crushing but Montsho was not beyond redemption. It would be at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow that tragedy struck, when instead of defending her 2010 400m title, Montsho once more failed a random doping test when a stimulant methylhexaneamine was found in her system. After her B sample tested positive, Montsho, gave in and waived to a hearing at the IAAF, following a two-year ban by the Commonwealth games committee. This meant Montsho, already in the twilight years of her running career, was pretty much finished. The athlete who is already financially secured planned to hang up her running shoes at the 2016 Rio Olympic games when she would be 33 years old. Naturally, a storm was brewing when the doping scandal was announced in both local and international media.
Montsho, a chronically shy and hesitant individual, went into recluse, deciding not to hold any press conferences when she returned home. While Montsho was making headlines all over the world, 800 km away from Gaborone at her home village, Maun, the attention their superstar daughter was drawing was confusing his traditional conservative parents. Speaking to Botswana Guardian, this week Montsho’s father Victor Nkape seemed slightly oblivious to the firestorm surrounding his daughter. “She started running at Bonata primary school in Maun, we were not aware of her talent then. The first sign of talent was when she went to the cattle post and ran with her peers. It was not until standard six that she started winning school competitions,” Nkape said.
Nkape, who spots jet dark complexion, lean bone structures and a piercing gaze his daughter inherited, said it was not until his daughter went to Tshwaragano Junior Secondary School in Maun that it became apparent that she had something special. “Amantle was challenged academically. After discovering her talent Botswana Athletics Association (BAA) came knocking. They spoke to us about her running talent, but the family thought this would distract her from academic schoolwork. We tried to get her out of running” As fate would have it Montsho’s form three grades were not good enough to get her admitted at senior secondary school and the path to her true destiny was clear from there on. With pressure from BAA authorities, Montsho would focus her attention on athletics. The lack of further education would later manifest itself in Montsho’ demeanour and confidence when performing under pressure in big stages. Naturally, the abundantly talented runner lacks the charisma and confidence of Jamaican 100m dynamo Usain Bolt, the passion of Alyson Felix and the ambition of her tongue-wagging countryman Nijel Amos.
Montsho first tasted international competition at the 2004 Athens Olympic games in Greece. The fresh faced athlete would finish 36th overall with a time of 53.77. The early 2000s would also be the same time Montsho left the country for her base at the high performance centre in Dakar, Senegal, a gateway to untold riches for the Maun lass. Her relatives would see her only during public holidays. Since the doping scandal, Nkape only spoke to his daughter twice, neither the BAA nor Botswana National Olympic Committee (BNOC) had come to explain the whole situation to the family in stark contrast to the time when they discovered her talent years ago. “She said she did not know what had occurred when I spoke to her. She said she took some medication, but never complained about anything else,” he explained. “I reminded her that there were a lot of obstacles in life. She must be strong and pray. Even Jesus Christ was tempted by the devil at some, point.” Nkape said he was not worried about his daughter, as she has done well for herself financially.
Amantle’s mother Janet Montsho is a woman of very few words. Speaking to Botswana Guardian at her humble homestead at Senonnori ward in Maun, she was hesitant, having previously switched off her phone upon request for an interview. A tall, light skinned woman with facial features resembling her famous daughter, Janet Montsho was inquisitive as to what we wanted from her. “I just spoke to Amantle; she does not want me to give interviews as they are of no use to us. There are other people who previously came and interviewed me here. What do you do with such interviews?” she asked. Shy as her daughter, she rarely makes eye contact and speaks slowly; Montsho said she was proud of her daughter, adding that she was making a living from her talent. She recalled that Amantle’s talent was apparent from early on. “She usually spends two weeks with us when she visits Maun. I was still expecting a lot from her before the doping scandal started.” Montsho’s mother said she too was hearing things about her daughter from the media but they had not spoken since she returned to the country. She added that talent ran in the family as Amantle’s sister Lorraine, who is doing form three, is winning races at school and appealed to sport authorities to support her.
Montsho’s best friend when growing up was her cousin Bakang Gubago. To Gubago, Montsho has always been a God fearing person who just had bad luck when she failed the doping test. “It was like a funeral when I was told that she had failed the test. We were very close growing up and supported each other when we competed at school,” she said. “We were separated when I went to senior school where I got injured, and Amantle continued with her running career. I motivated and encouraged her every time she ran. I told her to pray every time before a race. When she runs we usually gather in the same room as a family and watch her.” Gubago said she was in Maun when she heard the terrible doping news. “I have not spoken to her about the doping scandal. I will speak to her about it face to face when we meet.” Gubago feared that opponents must have set her cousin up as the world of international competition is cutthroat. Maun resident Goabaone Tshabo still thinks of Montsho as a heroine who flew the country’s flag sky high. “This must have been a terrible mistake she must have taken something in her food and drink before the race.
People are so fickle they stood by her when she was winning and alienate her in trying times,” Tshabo said. “The same thing happened with Oscar Pistorius, everyone stood by him when he was flying the South African flag high and left him out in the cold the minute he got into trouble.” Montsho is still an icon and has a place in the country’s history. He argued that his home girl did not even win the race following the doping test that led to her doom. Another Maun resident Samuel Makanye was sympathetic to the fallen icon. He blamed chemicals used in drinks and food as contributor to Montsho failing the doping test. Studies have shown that some foodstuffs contain such chemicals and these can pose a threat to professional athletes like Montsho. “A lot of us in Maun are sympathetic towards Montsho’s ordeal,” he moaned.