Silver Bullet Sepeng
Hezekiel Zeekie Sepeng’s accolades are many; South Africa record holder in the 800m since 1999; first black athlete to win an Olympic Medal in readmission (1996, Silver Medal), World Championship Silver medallist are the ones that most people know. But Hezekiel’s career was far more illustrious than that (See side bar).
Hezekiel grew up just outside of Potchefstroom and was identified as a precocious talent by long-time coach, JP Van Der Merwe. It was JP who brought the youngster to school at Potchefstroom Boys High where he was able to provide him with consistency and stability in his training. This structure combined with Hezekiel’s natural talent quickly saw him rise through the ranks of South African athletics leading to his first taste of international competition in 1992 at the World U20 Championships, where at the age of 18, he finished 5th in the 800m final. A year later still only 19, Zeekie donned the green and gold of South Africa at the 1993 World Championships. Again he finished 5th.
Hezekiel started to hit the 1:45 mark regularly in 1995 and everyone who watched him knew this was a massive talent. But it was 1996 that proved to be the big breakthrough in so many ways. Hezekiel made it known he was going to chase the 25-year-old South African 800m record and made big attempt at the second Engen Grand Prix Meeting in Pretoria on 8 April. It was a stacked field including his training partner Johan Botha, who was chasing an Olympic Qualifier, while David Strang was “hired” to pace the duo. The target at 400m was 50.05sec, the actual time was 51.09 – making life very difficult for Hezekiel to break the record of 1:44.7 set by Dicky Broberg in 1971 and equalled by Marcello, March, Fiasconaro in 1973. Gritting his teeth, Zeeks crossed the line in 1:44.96.
The heir apparent had to watch from the side-lines as rival Marius van Heerden (who passed away earlier this year) broke that long standing SA 800m record a week later at the Engen Grand Prix Final in Cape Town. Hezekiel had opted to run the 1500m and was gutted when van Heerden “took” the record from him and simultaneously qualified for the Atlanta Olympics. But if anything the fact that Marius had “stolen’ the record from him motivated Hezekiel even more. He had his sights set on an Olympic Medal. And to do that he knew he would need to go even faster. Hezekiel duly obliged when he ran 1:43.47 in Durham, North Carolina (USA) on 13 July. It was the fastest time on American soil that year and gave him the SA Record. It also was notice to the rest of the world that Hezekiel was not going to Atlanta to spectate.
On 31 July, 1996, Hezekiel Sepeng became the first black South African to win an Olympic medal after readmission. He clocked 1:42.74 in the Olympic final, beaten only by the Norwegian Vebjorn Rodahl (1:42.58). And if you watch the video you will see that had the track been 10m longer, he may very well have won gold. Despite his racing and experience, Hezekiel was still somewhat of a novice in international racing. And it showed in the final. Hezekiel found himself last with 200m to go and boxed. Gradually he squeezed his way up the field on the inside. But he had to get out and go wide at around 80-90m to go to be able to challenge for a medal. I have no doubt that the gold was his for taking. But 1996 is gone and Hezekiel’s name will forever remain in South Africa’s history books.
Seville and the closest race of his life
Hezekiel was in the form of his life coming into the World Championships in Seville in 1999. He was up against the World Record Holder, Wilson Kipketer. This was the man who had broken the long standing 800m World Record and was unbeatable. Travelling to Spain for their clash over two laps was one of my most memorable trips as I was privileged to accompany the South African team to the 1999 World Championships and Hezekiel allowed me to shadow him throughout the meet. He was supremely confident and he had good reason to be. He was racing himself into shape. His slowest time coming into the World Championships was 1:45.22. He had run under 1:45 on six occasions, one of which was a sub 1:44 clocking. He was nothing if not consistent.
Speaking to 1980 Olympic 800m Gold Medallist, Steve Ovett before the race, Ovett said that if Hezekiel wanted to win, he would “attack with 300m to go”. I spoke to Hezekiel before the final and asked him his game plan. “I’m going at 300m to go”. This was remarkable. Ovett had not spoken to Hezekiel and Zeekie was not aware of the thoughts of the former 1500m and mile World Record Holder. Hezekiel cruised through the rounds comfortably but the final would be a different story.
In the final he stayed well clear of trouble by running at the back but as the bell went, he moved with purpose into second place. And at 300m just as he had promised, Hezekiel attacked. I was recording the commentary of Steve Ovett in the stands as part of the “documentary” I was doing. I will never forget the goosebumps as Ovett went “and Sepeng goes. I said before the race he had to go with 300m and he has. Kipketer has been caught napping and will have to work hard to catch Sepeng.” At 200m Hezekiel went again and took the lead and was moving away. Kipketer was in third. Gradually he started to edge closer. Ovett was getting excited. I had to keep the camera steady but was craning my neck to watch what was happening on the track. Kipketer went past Hezekiel. He fought back and it was only dive that saw the World Record Holder and defending champion hold off Hezekiel. Ovett's words they crossed the line “and too the line….whoooo.” Even now when I rewatch the race I think Hezekiel will win. The margin between Hezekiel and Kipketer – 2/100 of second. That’s closer than many a close 100m sprint. Kipketer was timed at 1:43.30 and Hezekiel at 1:43.32. I will forever be grateful to Hezekiel for allowing me to be part of that history. Sadly the story has been lost in the archives of the SABC.
Hezekiel set the bench mark for 800m running in South Africa. He still holds the SA Record. He inspired a generation of 800m athletes. In the late 90’s there were was a plethora of two lappers who could run 1:45 and faster. Hezekiel inspired training partner Johan Botha to the world 800m indoor title in 1999 and inspired the great Mbualeni, Mbuli the Bullet, Mulaudzi. But that’s a story for another day.
Side Bar: Sepeng's CV
1995 – World University Games 800m Gold
1996 – Olympic Silver Medal 800m
1997 - World University Games 800m Silver
1998 – Commonwealth Games 800m Silver
1999 – World Championships 800m Silver
1999 – All Africa Games 800m Bronze
2004 – African Championships 800m Silver
5 x SA Representative at World Championships
3 x SA Representative at the Olympic Games
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.