16th April 2018

BY ISAAC PHEKO Botswana’s 400m sensation Isaac Makwala is no longer an underdog. Makwala won gold and made a telling statement when he finally won in dominant fashion at the ongoing 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia this past Tuesday. The muscle-bound runner blitzed the 400m final with a scorching 44.35 sec beating compatriot Baboloki Thebe who came in second place at 45.09 sec. Walking down tunnel at the arena moments before the race Makwala gave away a lot in terms of body language and facial expression. Usually calm in his demeanour, the runner looked a little nervous seemingly murmuring something to himself and tampering with his trade mark arm sleeve.

Little did he know that he was to run a race defining his career. Powering out of the block when the race started, Badman immediately made his intensions clear and he left all his rivals behind as he kept his momentum until he finished the middle-distance final. For years, Makwala has been written off as just another gatekeeper, a journeyman who frequently finishes out of the podium. Having been a top athlete for the better part of the past decade, Badman saw young athletes emerging and frequently eclipsing his then mediocre career. The likes of Nijel Amos, Karabo Sibanda and Baboloki Thebe came from behind and were quickly revered as future star while the Tutume native was seemingly in the last legs of his unremarkable running career.

Perhaps one of the lowest chapters in Makwala’s career was when upstarts Baboloki Thebe and Karabo Sibanda beat Makwala to became African Champion 400m champions just over two years ago. Thebe’s compatriot Karabo Sibanda took silver in 400m at the Africa Championship held in Durban South Africa. Back then, the mediocre runner from Tutume was used as a measuring stick by young athletes moving up the ranks. If they beat Makwala, they knew they were on to bigger things. Nevertheless, two years down the line Makwala’s career took a completely different turn. Like vintage fine wine, Makwala seems to have mellowed with time. As the 2016 Rio Olympic games approached Makwala’s career started to gain serious traction, as the 30-year-old runner suddenly found his speed. Rugged, muscular and focused Makwala seems to have eluded injuries that have been stalling the career of less fortunate athletes. When the 2016 Olympics came around, Makwala did not bring any medals back home. Team Botswana seemed to have been lost in the midst of fast super stars like Wayde Van Nierkerk of SA and Kirani James of Grenada.

Following the Olympics, Makwala’s speed continued to impress leading up to the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London. When he arrived in London, Makwala knew very little that destiny awaited him. Before competing in one of the preliminary races the on-form athletes were excluded from one of the preliminary heats following a nuro virus outbreak at the athlete’s village. A media storm surrounding the athlete quickly formed with fingers being pointed at biased IAAF officials. What followed the controversial decision was sensational as Makwala was allowed to embark on a solo run that would be broadcast live, around the world and made the runner a house hold name overnight. Once again both Makwala and his team mates failed to bring home any medals from the World Championships in London. Nevertheless, Makwala was given a hero’s welcome and gained worldwide prominence.

Earlier this week, Makwala’s celebrity status was elevated once again when he won gold in dominant fashion at the ongoing Games in Australia. Makwala and Thebe ended a four-year international medal drought in Botswana. However, the Badman is not yet done in the Gold Coast as his multitudes of supporters will be waiting with bated breath to see him grab another medal during the 4x400m relay event. The 4x400m relay team including Karabo Sibanda, Onkabetse Nkobolo and Baboloki Thebe will receive a major boost with when they take to the track. Makwala joins an elite club of Commonwealth gold medal winners including Nijel Amos and Amantle Montsho. This week, the man credited with discovering Makwala, Zibane Molopo said he was not surprised Makwala took gold at the Commonwealth.

A lecturer at Msawzwi brigade where Makwala studied carpentry, Molopo said his protégé ran a great race. “His body language was telling before the race as he seemed nervous. He was not relaxed at all. He is usually seated during the introductory walk but this time he seemed to be speaking or praying before the race,” Molopo said. “He seemed to have marked the Indian runner Muhammad Yahiya and did fairly well from the starting block. Once he hit the groove he focused on endurance in the first two hundred metres.” Molopo said his protégé seemed to be powering towards the finish in the last 50m of the race. “You could see that he was not even tired after the race. He focused on the screen and did not look for rivals on the sides.” According to Molopo Makwala’s age is not a factor. Age is nothing but a number and we are expecting him to stay competitive for the next two years provided he takes care of himself.

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