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  • Writer's pictureCharles Baloyi

Thugwane hails Chuene for putting athletes first.

SA marathon legend Josia Thugwane paid a moving tribute to the former Athletics South Africa (ASA) president Leonard Chuene. Chuene succumbed to cancer at the age of 68 on Friday. South Africa's first black Olympic gold medalist said Chuene will always hold a special place in South African athletics.

As ASA's founding president, the former chairperson of Diepkloof Athletics Club led the federation from its formation in 1995, until he lost his battle to stay in office against the SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc). The outspoken Chuene was eventually ousted in for his handling of the Caster Semenya gender saga. He got slapped with a seven year ban.

Chuene attends a Diepkloof Athletic Club function at the Diepkloof Hall in 2017. He served as DAC's chairperson for many years and earned a Comrades green number in their colours. Photo Credit: Diepkloof Athletic Club.

He allegedly lied about the gender verification test conducted on the 800m athlete ahead of the 2009 IAAF world champs in Berlin 2009 where she won gold. But the man who won the Olympic Marathon at Atlanta 1996 said no one is perfect and that people must learn to forgive and forget. "Let me start by sending the condolences to the family for their loss. A giant has fallen. The man worked for the country and made a big difference in athletics. It was an honour to run under his leadership during my time," recalled Thugwane.

Thugwane, an Olympic ambassador for tyre giants Bridgestone, said firing the man in the wake of the Caster Semenya saga took the sport backwards. "We got everything that we wanted during his time as the leader of ASA. He worked hard with Banele Sindane and brought change to athletics," said heartbroken Thugwane. Part of the secret to his 1996 success was the training camp he attended in the United States before the Games kicked off in Atlanta. South Africa's marathon squad including Thugwane, Xolile Yawa and Gert Thys spent weeks in a training camp in Albuquerque New Mexico acclimatizing to the conditions. Former National Olympic Committee of South Africa (NOCSA) Boss Sam Ramsamy and Chuene were instrumental in putting that camp together.

Olympic Champion Josiah Thugwane pictured at the 2015 Sanlam Cape Town Marathon where he was an ambassador. Photo Credit: Roger Sedres.

But what Thugwane remembers most fondly is coming back from the Olympics on the same flight as Chuene. " He gave me a big hug, and we celebrated all the way home. I remember the day he brought me pap to the USA. There was no pap, and I complained about American food. He was a good listener and cared deeply about the runners," explained Thugwane. Team SA won five medals at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, two of those having been won by Chuene's newly formed athletics federation.

Thugwane said Chuene was also the first administrator to entice big sponsorships to back the sport. " He paved the way for today's administrators, and the sad thing is that they don't even think about the athletes. Today's leadership is all about power and self-recognition. He fought for us to get money and sponsorship. I remember the Nedbank running competition where runners got R60 000 for winning the race. Today runners get R500 000 for winning races," But Thugwane said politics, jealousy, and hidden agendas got rid of the man, who was born to lead ASA. "He was harshly dismissed because of the Caster Semenya saga. The enemy won, but we should not allow them to treat him like this in death. What I have learned is that politics will kill you. Politics tainted his legacy, but I choose to celebrate him like a hero that he deserves to be," said Thugwane.

Thugwane (right) poses with 1996 Olympic silver medalist Hezekiel Sepeng (left) & ASA board member Dorah Mngwevu (centre) at the 2015 Kaya FM 67km Relay. Photo Credit: Mosibodi Whitehead.

The soft-spoken icon urged ASA board members to follow in Chuene's footsteps and put athletes first. Thugwane said ASA failed Chuene as they did not celebrate him while he was still alive. "The young athletes do not know the contribution that this man has made. ASA failed Chuene and did not highlight his contribution to the public when he was still alive," Thugwane is grateful to the monthly retainer that he gets from Bridgestone which allows him to feed his family. "If it was not for Bridgestone, I could have died of hunger. The contract expires at the end of the year, and I do not know what will happen to me afterward. In SA, people celebrate you when you have died and ignore you when you are still alive," added Thugwane.

Chuene will be remembered as a fearless administrator who was an avid runner himself who earned his Comrades Marathon Green Number by completing 12 races between 1987 and 2000, earning 11 Bronze medals and 1 Silver medal.

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