Local 400m runner Isaac Makwala may not have been born great. However, greatness was definitely thrust upon him during the recent IAAF World championships in London, UK.
The Tutume-born taciturn sprinter may not have brought home a medal from London but he has won the hearts of over a billion track and field enthusiasts around the world.
The story of Makwala has now become legendary. The runner found himself in the eye of a raging controversy after he was denied the opportunity to compete in the 400m finals at the London Championships due to suspicions that he had contracted the norovirus. Being denied entry into the stadium turned the attention of the world to both Makwala and his native country, Botswana. The unpopular decision by the IAAF led to an incredible and emotional 200m solo run in the wet track that saw the 30 year old qualify for the 200m semi finals, another race he was denied in the preliminary stages of the event.
Nevertheless a lot of people do not really know the soft-spoken runner who easily blends into the crowd. Botswana Guardian recently visited the man who knows Makwala best, being his elderly father, Wonderful Makwala at his Tutume residence almost a 100km away from Francistown.
The elderly Makwala, a traditional Kalanga farmer, has been blown away and amazed by his own son before he went on to conquer the world at the age of 30. Makwala senior first noticed his son’s gift of running when he was in the early years of primary school. “I would often be called to come and witness my son leaving behind grown men in races before he was even a teenager. Nonetheless, I never approved of this, as I wanted him to focus on his academics at Mpane primary school,” Makwala said. As a grown man and world-class runner, Makwala often left his father in awe due to his physical abilities. By the year 2006 Makwala was already making money from his numerous running assignments and investing most of it in cattle farming. “One day my son arrived from a competition in South Africa. When he got to the cattle-post he told me he liked one of my bulls and wanted to buy it. I confronted him over the matter asking him whether he had enough money because I was charging P5000 for the bull, as I admired the beast myself.” After making the offer, the elderly Makwala said he saw his son cleaning himself up and what would follow the brief negotiations over the bull left the elderly man speechless. “He immediately set off from the cattle-post to cash the money from Sowa town. That is 52 km from my cattle post near the Makgadikgadi and he ran the distance in one day.” Isaac, who rears cattle alongside his father, is now a cattle farmer and spends most of his time at the cattle-post when he is not competing around the world. Makwala’s heart-wrenching experiences at the London World Championships brought pain and sadness to his family. “I was sad when I saw how badly he was being treated on TV. His mother and I turned to prayer. That experience brought sadness in both Bokalaka and Mmangwato. The president even came to my house and discussed the matter”.
Nonetheless, the elderly Makwala said sadness in the family did not last long as he was soon shouting at the top of his voice when Makwala went on his historic time attack in a bid to qualify for the 200m finals. “I was screaming ‘Gondolo’ that’s the nickname I gave him which means young bull”. Wonderful Makwala said his son has brought both pride and prestige to the family name after President Ian Khama recently announced that a stadium facility planned for Tutume village, will be named after the runner. Makwala’s older brother Isaiah Makwala is equally proud of his sibling’s achievements. “He is the last born in the family from my father’s second wife. He grew up right before my eyes, we were never separated for long periods,” he said, adding that Isaac was always enthusiastic about sports. “However football was closer to his heart when he was at Pandagala Secondary School. He also played as a defender for a local team called Gulana. During that time we could see that he could run but we did not think he would reach these heights.” However, Makwala was sort of a late bloomer as he only discovered his true destiny and calling after attending a one-year carpentry course at Nswazwi brigade.
“After attending Nswazwi brigade he got into proper athletic structure and competed nationally. I remember one of his international running call ups was in Singapore.”Isaiah Makwala described his sibling as an enthusiastic farmer who continues to buy cattle with the handsome proceeds he makes from competing in the world stage.
“He spends most of his time in Tutume and supports a local team called Magapatona United. When Isaac competes the whole village is often buzzing with the hype. ”
Makwala’s elder brother described the painful experience of having watched his younger brother being denied access into the stadium where he was due to face South African archrival Wayde Van Niekerk and others in the 400m final.
“I was attending a funeral when I heard something was wrong in London. During that time I was communicating with him through social media and he told me he was fit to run. This experience clearly affected his confidence”.
Makwala said it was sad that his brother was treated this way, as his running career will soon end due to his age. Meanwhile, if there is a single unsung hero in the Isaac Makwala success story it will definitely be Zibane Molopo, a lecturer and coach at Nswazwi brigade. Molopo first met Makwala around 2005 when he started working at the brigade. Molopo said when he met the athlete he was already engaged in track and field activities and about to complete his studies at the school. “I got engaged in sports activities and realised that Makwala had power”. Molopo, who was not formally trained as a coach said he did research on the Internet and contacted athletics clubs around the country. “I took Makwala through basic training in 200 and 400m. For 400m he ran 600m and for 200m I made him run 300m”. Molopo said the brigade did not have proper training facilities but Makwala was both energetic and dedicated and would wake up to train at 4am. Molopo said he took the young Makwala through tough training processes including running in the sand or through the rain. “I also joined him in long distance running including a 12 km stretch where I often got a lift and he caught up with me later on”. According to Molopo, Makwala has always been a disciplined athlete who could easily record 45 seconds in local 400m races. Makwala joined the national team between the ages of 18 and 20 and later went on to compete in places like South Africa and Seychelles. “Back in the day I helped the up and coming athlete to acquire a passport to compete outside the country”. Molopo who also coaches volleyball, said Makwala soon acquired a life-changing scholarship and joined the likes of Amantle Montsho in Dakar, Senegal. “We still retain a good relationship today. He often lets me know when he is going to compete”. Makwala was discovered from the same area as fellow international athletes, Glody Dube and Nijel Amos.
Quizzed on what makes this part of the country stand out in producing quality athletes, Molopo said the school system in the area encourages athletes to do extracurricular activities including sports. Molopo said it is unheard of for school-going children not to participate in sport activities in the Tutume area. Makwala surprised the nation and the world on July 14th 2017 during the Barcelona Diamond League when he became the first man in history to run a 200m within 20 seconds and a 400m within 44 seconds on the same day. He recorded 43.92 seconds in the 400m.