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  • Writer's pictureMosibodi Whitehead

'He was a fierce competitor' - Bester & Mieklejohn remember late fellow Comrades gold medalist Theo Rafiri

Tributes continue to pour in for late Comrades gold medalist Theo Rafiri who took his last breath over the weekend. The 57-year-old passed away on Sunday 17 December after being involved in what is believed to be a hit and run accident while he was out running on the notorious Klipspruit Valley (Klipvalley) road in Soweto. The man who first ran The Ultimate Human Race in 1987 will be best remembered for finishing second behind Germany's Charly Doll in 5:42:16 the 1993 Down Run. Shaun Meiklejohn who won the race in 1995, says Rafiri was a fierce competitor.

"I was very shocked to hear that Theo had passed away, he was a fiercely competitive athlete and was very consistent over a period of a few years. He had quite an awkward running style but you couldn't focus too much on that because he still managed to run very well. Condolences to his family and may he rest in peace," he said.

A newspaper clipping of Rafiri in action during the 1994 Comrades Marathon. Photo Credit: Supplied.

Those sentiments are shared by Nick Bester who also won South Africa's beloved 90km race and had some memorable battles against Rafiri, most notably in 1995 when the former took ninth position in 5:49:54 just 39 seconds ahead of Rafiri who secured what would be the last gold medal of his Comrades career. Bester who is now the national manager of the Nedbank Running Club, was once a teammate of Rafiri's when they both belonged to the Harmony Athletic Club during the early 2000's. He says he will always remember the Sowetan for his outspoken no-nonsense nature.

"Theo was my teammate at the 1994 Comrades marathon, where I was the captain of the team representing SA against International team which included stars like Alberto Salazar (1994 winner), Russians, Europeans etc. We won the team competition, but in real Rafiri tradition he gave everyone a piece of his mind at the finish line about what he thought was 'wrong or right.' He was always a force to be reckoned with and you could always expect some drama from him. It's a great loss to the SA running community. He will always be remembered."

Rafiri drew his courage to speak his mind from his wells of inner strength, which he also used when he was on the road. "Your mind is big. Learn to run without supplements, use what the race offers its still good enough, I have learnt to do without them. It's possible," he advised one fellow runner on #TheTopRunner 's Facebook page.

Rafiri receives his triple green number from Comrades Marathon legends Bruce Fordyce and Willie Mtolo after completing the 2016 Down Run. Photo Credit: CMA Media.

Aside form his heydays as a Comrades top runner when he produced four consecutive sub six hour gold medal clockings between 1992 and 1995, the man who ran his first Comrades in the colours of Ebony Athletic Club had a deep love for the 100-year-old race which saw him continue running it long after he was done chasing gold medals. Rafiri completed a staggering 34 Comrades Marathon races, which included 32 consecutive medals between 1987 and 2018. Most recently the man who ran for the Carlton Athletic Club for over a decade, finished the 2023 race in June in 8:35:56.

Rafiri's passing has affected not just the running community, but also his family who are struggling to find closure because the exact details of the accident that led to their son, brother, husband and father's death remain sketchy. The family is hoping that the Orlando West station of the South African Police Services who have been handling the case, will be forthcoming with more information in the days to follow. For now though, funeral arrangements continue, which will be shared as soon as they have been finalised.

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