Lebogang Shange at the 2016 African Championships (© Roger Sedres)
“Why don’t you run?” was least of the barbs hurled at Lebogang Shange when he started race walking around Soweto.
Now, the South African record-holder believes he is on the cusp of something major that on a good day will net him an Olympic medal in Rio next month.
It was the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and, in particular, Jared Tallent’s double medal haul in both the 20km and 50km events that first inspired the 25-year-old to have a go at the discipline.
The Australian might seem unreachable to most race walkers, but not the super-confident Shange.
He thought he might be as good, if not better, once he got the bit between his teeth. But getting started proved harder than Shange thought.
He asked around about race walking in South Africa, and because there was precious little response, he started training on his own around the township.
Any race walker training where the sport is a mystery will guess the reaction Shange got in his early days as he trained in earnest.
Mouths were agape and then turned to guffaws before the usual brickbats followed at what, in all fairness, often looks strange to the uninitiated.
It’s difficult to tell what hurt the man with a fine 1:20:06 personal and national record most.
Was it voices shouting at him to run? (And when Shange says it, the roll in the ‘r’ has a particular aggression to it.) Or was it those telling him that race walking was ‘for old ladies’?
Probably worse, was the insult that he was a black man in a predominantly white man’s world.
“I asked around about race walking, but there was no one to help me so I started doing it on my own,” he explained. “It is difficult coming out of the townships. They always tried to discourage me and say things like ‘why are you walking with the ladies, you are just another black man amongst white men.’
“I looked at Beijing and Jared Tallent taking a silver and a bronze, and I thought I could to do it better than him.”
Once Shange did make the connections with the likes of Chris Britz, a former national champion and now an experienced coach, it was clear the ambitious athlete had to get out of the township and into the company of those that have been there, done that, and worn the T-shirt marked ‘champion’.
It’s no small irony that Shange is now about as far from Soweto as you can get spiritually, and almost literally, while he trains with the very man that got him started in the first place.
The high altitude that St Moritz in Switzerland offers is where Shange and Tallent are now training side by side as both put finishing touches to an Olympic challenge.
Robert Heffernan’s progress springs to mind before the Irishman’s scintillating win over 50km at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow.
Heffernan followed the brilliant Robert Korzeniowski around the world Pied Piper style, soaking up hints and help from the four-time Olympic gold medallist while begging for floor space for his sleeping bag.
The sacrifice and the suffering paid off for Heffernan, and Shange thinks it will for him too.
Walking along the right path
“There was no help for me back in South Africa, apart from advice,” he added, “and I needed to be shown the right path.
“My coach told me you have to hang around with the guys who can, stay with the guys, keep in touch with the guys, and ask around as much as you can.
“I’m out of the township now but also there is practically no one who can one can walk even a 1:23:00 (20km) at home, and I need to be with people who can.”
In fact, Shange has developed from 1:25:48 in 2012, to the 1:20:06 that saw him finish second by just two seconds to Dane Bird-Smith in Adelaide back in February at the first IAAF Race Walking Challenge event of the year.
The best part of six minutes is not far short of nearly two kilometres for the best going full tilt.
In between, there was a 2013 African Championship win, 11th place at the World Championships last year, and third at last month’s African Championships, behind Kenya’s Samuel Gathimba and Tunisia’s Hassanine Sebei.
Shange was consoled by no other than 1996 Olympic champion and three-time world champion Jefferson Perez after what the South African called a “bad day at the office” when he struggled home in 1:24:53 at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Rome 2016 in May.
“Anyone can have a bad day, he told me,” and Shange plans to go the same way as the Ecuadorian if he wins a medal.
Following in the foosteps of Perez
Perez’s rise to fame gave race walking a foothold in his country. The South African could go back to where he came from and remind all those who mocked that he now mixes with the best in his chosen event.
Instead, Shange hopes that when he has any kind of medal, he will try to promote race walking, picking up disciples in much the way Perez did in Ecuador over the past decade.
“For the people in the townships, race walking is nothing; they don’t take it seriously,” added Shange.
“No one takes race walking seriously in Africa. Track and field, yes; running, of course; but I want to open the door. Jeff Perez gives me advice and tells me if you have one medal then everything will be changed.
“I want to promote race walking, and say it’s not just for white people.
“It is difficult, most people don’t know about race walking in South Africa, and certainly not Soweto where I’m from.
“But I know what I want. I want to be a world champion, a Commonwealth champion. There may be setbacks, but I will never give up.”
Paul Warburton for the IAAF