Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Makwala- how a moment of adversity brought Batswana together

It was a nightmare. The dreams and expectations of an entire nation were about to come crashing down. In a world where fake news have become the order of the day, one would have easily brushed it aside as such. But with every bit of news that began to filter in and reputable agencies like the BBC confirming the unthinkable, an entire nation stood still. Botswana, a nation currently polarised by politics, suddenly remembered what matters most. That there was more that brought them together than divided them. All joined hands in condemning highly suspicious attempts to ‘sabotage’ their golden boy. Isaac Makwala, the country’s only reasonable hope for gold at the IAAF World Championships in London, had been dealt a blow.

“Botswana’s medal prospect Isaac Makwala has withdrawn from Tuesday night’s 400m final following an outbreak of norovirus which is spreading at the London 2017 World Championships,” British media reported.  “IAAF, athletics’ world governing body, announced 400m star Makwala was withdrawn from the men’s 400m (final) due to a medical condition on the instruction of the IAAF medical delegate,’ the news read.

While there was confusion and speculation over his withdrawal from the 200m heats on Monday, August 7, it did not seem to matter much. ‘It will give him time to prepare for the 400m final,’ seemed to be general sentiment. Besides being the fastest man in 200m this year, Makwala was a natural in the 400m race and a fierce competitor for the reigning Olympic champion Wayde van Niekerk (South Africa). When news broke of Makwala’s forced withdrawal from the 400m final, a nation and the entire athletics world, stopped to take notice. What had been billed to become the race of the entire Championships, and possibly the year 2017, was to be no more. So big was the hype behind the impending 400m battle that even Usain Bolt’s surprise loss to the US’s Justin Gatlin became just another fleeting moment in the games. Conspiracy theories began to fly around.

Former world and Olympic champion Michael Johnson (US) claimed athletics chiefs stopped Makwala from running the 400m final to ensure South Africa’s van Niekerk won the race. While the IAAF medical team remained adamant about Makwala’s supposed infection, ‘Badman’ Makwala maintained he was fit to run.

So desperate to have his day on the track was Makwala that he even attempted to make his way into the stadium and compete.

“Botswana’s Isaac Makwala was refused entry to the London Stadium on Tuesday after earlier being withdrawn from the night’s 400 meters final at the World Championships after falling victim to an outbreak of sickness that has hit scores of competitors,” international media reported. “The 30-year-old, who was considered one of the main challengers to gold medalist Wayde van Niekerk and is a national icon, had also been ordered to withdraw from Monday’s opening round of the 200m.”

Although he went on to win the 400m final, van Niekerk’s victory was definitely not as sweet as he would have hoped. The IAAF had ruined what was the most anticipated duel of the 2017 championships.

By the time Minister of Sport Thapelo Olopeng addressed the media in Gaborone on Wednesday, August 9, to express his disappointment, the ship had already sailed.

“Our officials wrote a letter to the IAAF medical commission asking them to release our athlete to compete and they did not respond until the end of the race,” he said.

“I instructed our official to file an official protests because we have to make sure that as a country we are accorded the respect we deserve.” By the end of the press briefing it emerged Makwala had been cleared to compete in the 200m. Having missed out on the heats on Monday, Badman would have to go at it alone. And alone he did. It was one of the most emotional moments of the championships’ history. That moment will remain entrenched in the memory of all those who were there. Either through television or right there inside the stadium.

Those 20:20 seconds a lonely Makwala sprinted at a packed London Stadium became a crucial reminder that even under such a competitive environment, adversity would always bring the world together. Those old enough to have witnessed the Barcelona 1992 Summer Olympics would remember Britain’s 400m runner Derek Redmond. His father had pushed his way into the track to help the son limp his way to the finish line following an injury while competing in the 400m semi-finals. It was Redmond’s resilience in the face of adversity that won the hearts of the entire world. Although, for all his efforts, he would not clinch a podium finish, Makwala’s determination to compete, against the wishes of the IAAF authorities, will ensure his place in the Championships’ history books. And for a week, at least, Batswana would have gone back to the crossroads and rediscovered the spirit of togetherness the foundation on which this country was built.

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