Baboloki Thebe at the press conference for the IAAF World U20 Championships Bydgoszcz 2016 (© Getty Images)
Baboloki Thebe’s foremost sport at primary school was football but the emerging 400m talent from Botswana took up athletics when he started at the Nthwalang Junior Secondary School in Digawana where he was motivated by the possibility of going on trips and travelling with his teammates.
His teachers, who realised his potential as a sprinter, made him run the 100m, 200m, 4x100m and 4x400m.
Thebe quickly impressed in regional and national competitions and the 19-year-old was duly enrolled to Goodhope Senior Secondary School in Gaborone – identified as centre of sports excellence – to pursue his studies. He was soon called up to the national team camp in December 2013 in preparation for the 2014 African Youth Games which were staged in the country's capital city of Gaborone.
It was during the camp that he met and started working with his current coach Mogomotsi Otsetswe.
Thebe won a brace of medals at those championships – bronze in the 100m and gold in the 200m in a national youth record of 20.85 – but bigger things were soon to follow as Thebe gained the qualifying marks for two global events: the 2014 World Junior Championships in Eugene and the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing.
His standout performance was a silver medal in the 200m in Nanjing in 21.20 which in particular brought him national recognition. Soon after, Thebe was named Botswana National Sports Council Junior Male Sportsperson for 2014.
In what was a comparatively low-key season with limited international appearance, Thebe still improved to 10.29 and 20.59 in the short sprints the following year but he was still largely unheard of internationally until he stepped up to the 400m earlier this year.
“Last year I was injured, so my coach told me to train for the 400m. I started training for the 400m and in my first race, I ran 45 seconds,” explained Thebe modestly, omitting the fact he sealed the Olympic qualifying standard on his debut in March with 45.23 and beat national record-holder and sub-44 competitor Isaac Makwala in the process.
But it was at the Botswanan Championships on 21-22 May in Gaborone where Thebe made a splash both domestically and internationally with a 400m PB of 44.22. That mark was not only an African U20 record but it also made him the second-fastest U20 athlete ever for the distance behind Steve Lewis, who clocked 43.87 to win the gold medal at the 1988 Olympic Games.
The following day he won the 200m in 20.21. One month later, Thebe produced his fastest time at sea level, 44.69, to claim the senior African title in Durban ahead of his training partner Karabo Sibanda (45.42) before winning the 4x400m title.
“For now, my favourite event is 400m because I’m running a good time. This year is only the 400m,” said Thebe, who suggested he might contest the 200m and 400m at future global championships.
Thebe’s performance in Gaborone at the start of the season might have caused a surprise around the world but the time did not shock Thebe, who cites Kirani James as one of his role models.
“I was training for that time so I am happy for it,” said Thebe unassumingly, who is now naturally looking towards the 44-second barrier. “I think 43.8-43.9 would be okay, I think in time I can go for it.”
Thebe lines up as the resounding favourite for the individual title in Bydgoszcz this week before he switches his attention to the bigger stage of the Olympic Games next month. Thebe will travel to Rio de Janeiro with one of the fastest times on paper but he is also keen to excel in the 4x400m where Botswana – with Makwala, Sibando and Nijel Amos on the roster – could feature prominently in the final.
“I think we are going to do a good time and do a PB so I think we are aiming for our best time for the national team [2:59.95],” said Thebe, stopping short of predicting a medal.
“I don’t know about a medal. We just want to improve our time; a medal would be a bonus.”
Carole Fuchs and Steven Mills for the IAAF