Bullet. Mbuli. Silver Bullet. Hard man. Fighter. “You won’t get passed him in the home straight if he is in front.” Those are the words and phrases you would have heard when people spoke about Mbualeni Tongai Mulaudzi. That he was incredibly talented could not be denied. That he was indeed a tough and hard competitor whom you would struggle to beat once he took the lead in his specialist 800m race is also a truth. Mbualeni Mulaudzi was arguably South Africa’s best ever two lap exponent in the men’s race, yes even better than the legendary Hezekiel Sepeng. Why do I say that when Hezekiel’s SA 800m record has remained unbeaten since 1999? Well a glance at his record will show that in every year from 1999 to 2009 bar two (2001 and 2005), Mbuli medalled at some sort of championship event.
Were it not for the eye of Makonde Makumisane in Muduluni in Limpopo, we would never have seen the brilliance of Mbuli. Makonde saw Mbuli running during soccer training. He was doing 15km per day and still looked like he could run the half lapper. Makonde went to Mbuli’s father, a Colonel in the Police force, and begged him to take back the football shoes he had just bought Mbuli and invest in a decent pair of running shoes. Whatever Makonde said clearly got through and inspired both Mulaudzi Senior and Mbuli, because there he was the next day churning out the laps around a hard caked mud square that was roughly 400m in circumference. A rough diamond was being cut.
“You’ve got a good one there”
My first proper encounter with Mbuli was in 2000 when I toured with him on what was affectionately called the “refugee tour." This tour was organised by former Meet Promoter Andy Norman on behalf of the then IAAF, now World Athletics. Andy it was who was responsible for bringing out some of the World’s best to the Engen Grand Prix Summer Series. Andy was also at one stage the head of British Athletics. The “refugee tour” was a tour set up by WA to give an opportunity to athletes who were bubbling under and needed a breakthrough to the big leagues. A number of South African Legends such as Mathew Quinn, Heide Seyerling, Arnaud Malherbe were amongst those who went on the tour. And in 2000, Mbuli was part of it.
His coach, Ian Harries went along. He would, with great pride regale us with the story of how Mbuli one day just pitched up on his doorstep. “Here was this young kid. Shy, but determined, who knocked on my door," Harries shared. "‘Sir,’ he said, ‘I want to train with you."' Ian was based in the Vaal and Mbuli had taken the initiative to travel all the way from his village of Muduluni in Limpopo to come and train with Ian as he had a reputation of being a more than decent coach. Ian goes on to say how he looked at Mbuli, asked him which event, or events and was pleased to hear a middle-distance athlete was interested. The middle distances are Ian’s passion and his forte. What followed then in the story was quite funny. Ian asked Mbuli his name. Now when you met Mbuli for the first time, you struggled to understand him when he spoke. He was shy and even his deep voice came out rather quietly. So here is what Ian heard (spelt phonetically)….MbulMulaudz. Even though Mbuli had won the 1999 Africa Junior Championships 800m title, he was still relatively unknown. So Ian asked him his best 800m time. 1:48.33 was the response. And his 400m time? 47.20. Odd that Ian had not heard of Mbuli before. So he phoned the doyen of statistics, Oom Gert Le Roux and asked him about this “youngster in front of him”. “Oh you’ve got a good one there,” was the response from Oom Gert. Who then proceeded to rattle off some performances – and Ian’s eyes lit up. He had a Diamond in the Rough.
Mbuli was scheduled to race the 800m in Budapest, Hungary on 22 July 2000. His opposition? None other than the 1996 Olympic Champion, Vebjorn Rodal, who had denied Hezekiel Sepeng an Olympic gold in the 800m. Mbuli was unfazed. He ran with Rodahl for the first 600m and then went ahead – and you do not pass Mbuli once he has taken the front. Rodal didn’t – Rodal faded to 4th. Mbuli had his first major scalp and won in a PB of 1:45.55. That evening Andy Norman came bouncing into the room. “Mulaudzi (he too could never quite get the pronunciation right), pack your bags.” We were all stunned. What had just happened? After a minute of silence, clearly enjoying the looks he was getting, Andy said, “pack your bags, you’re going to Stockholm." The DN Galan Meeting in Stockholm, while not (then) a Golden League meeting, was one step below that and getting an invite to race there on such short notice was big. At the age of 19, Mbualeni Mulaudzi had hit the jackpot. Made the breakthrough. He was destroyed in that race, but that didn’t matter, his path was set.
2004 – a year to remember
In 2002, Mbuli won his first major international senior title when he beat Joseph Mutua (1996 World Junior Champion), Japhet Kimutai (defending champion and 1999 All Africa Games Champion) and Botswana’s Glody Dube at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. And from there it just got better and better. In 2003 he won the silver at the All-Africa Games, as well as the Bronze Medal in the 800m in Paris at the World Championships.
But 2004 was a year to remember. Mbuli was selected by ASA to represent South Africa at the World Indoor Championships in Budapest – the city which catapulted him to the international arena – and would take his career another step forward. I was producing the Television Highlights for the IAAF and was sitting in the broadcast van watching how this kid from SA was destroying the rest of the field. His winning time of 1:45.71 was half a second ahead of Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain and Osmar Dos Santos from Brazil. My employers were not best pleased with me when I raced (yes I could do that in those days) out of the TV Compound to the Mixed Zone. Mbuli was still there. He had the biggest smile on his face. But his response was typical Mbuli. Me: “Dude, man, this is epic. Dude, so well done. This is awesome.” Mbuli: “Thank you sir”. Very dry and humble. It kind of took my breath away. He had just conquered the world and here he was with a quiet “Thank you sir." But that was Mbuli. He was always respectful. Except on the track. There he was the boss. Bullet had arrived. No longer was he a dangerman, he was now a legitimate contender. And he backed that up with a Silver Medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
Mbuli had his fair share of rough times. Needing something to take him just that one step further to break Hezekiel Sepeng's record, Mbuli parted ways with coach Ian Harries which left him floundering a bit in 2005, during which time he also picked up an injury. Many believed he couldn’t turn his 2004 success into more. They were wrong. But it did take time though.
In 2006 Mbuli joined JP van der Merwe's group, he who had moulded Sepeng and Johan Botha into Olympic and World Championships medallists. Things started to pick up then. Silver at the 2006 World Indoor Championships, winner of the IAAF World Athletics Final and Bronze at the IAAF World Cup and no one could say he was finished.
But 2008 was rough again. Injury dogged Mbuli and he asked his good friend, Hezekiel Sepeng to coach him. Zeeks nursed him through the injury and brought him back to form in 2009 when, as the underdog he won the World Title.
2009 was supposed to be the beginning of the next stage of his career, but Mbuli was looking to life beyond athletics and was wanting to open a foundation with Hezekiel Sepeng in his home town. While still competitive, Mbuli was plagued with injury and was more and more focused on his Foundation.
Then tragedy struck. On his way to an ASA Meeting on 24 October, 2014, Mbuli was involved in a horrific car crash that saw him lose his life. But such was the impact he had made on the country and his fellow athletes, that at his memorial attended by both national and international media, he was lauded by then State President, Jacob Zuma in a message delivered by then Minister Mac Maharaj. The IAAF and IOC were devastated. But hardest hit, other than his family, were his fellow athletes. Caster Semenya, Khotso Mokoena (with whom Mbuli was also interested in starting a business with) and close friend, Tebogo Masehla were heartbroken. There was no holding back the raw emotion that was on display at the memorial service. To this day Tebogo will honour his final day on social media. Close friend, former team mate, mentor and coach, Hezekiel Sepeng still gets a faraway look in his eyes when he speaks of Mbuli. “Ai but that guy was a beast. He should have broken my record. That day, I will never forget it.”
Mbuli’s manager and agent, Peet van Zyl, though best summed up the incredible career of Mbuli, Bullet, Mbualeni Mulaudzi. “Mr Mulaudzi was surely one of the most decorated track athletes that South Africa has ever seen and unfortunately never had the recognition from the federation for all his achievements, so it is indeed a sad day."
Peet was not wrong as the stats as results of Mbuli will show.
World Indoor Championships
All Africa Games
IAAF World Cup
800 metres – 1:42.86 min (2009)
800 metres (indoor) – 1:44.91 min (2008)
1000 metres – 2:15.86 min (2007)
1500 metres – 3:38.55 min (2008)
Manfred Seidler has been in the media industry in athletics since 1994 having managed the media around a number of SA Track and Field Championships, SA Cross Country Championships and Road Championships. He also was the media account director on the hugely successful Engen Grand Prix Summer Series from 1995 to 1997 before being head hunted by the Television company Octagon CSI. Manfred founded the athletics TV Show Athletics Alive (later to become Engen Gijima) until the sponsor withdrew from the sport in 2003. During that time Manfred had the privilege of traveling the world and meeting and interviewing some of the best athletes in the world while he chased South Africa’s finest around the globe. Manfred resurrected Athletics Alive in 2011 on behalf of SABC and produced the show until 2016. He has covered three Olympic Games (2008/12/16 - was in London for 2012), the Commonwealth Games (2006/10/14/18) and was able to attend three World Championships. Manfred is now an accomplished Media Consultant with Athletics his biggest focus - and still his biggest passion.