South Africa: Precious Mashele, the Reluctant Olympian

The Olympic Games mean more to the Boxer Athletic Club runner than glory. They're a means to a much-needed potential pay cheque.

Lesiba Precious Mashele has made the long journey from Ga-Maraba, a village in the Mashashane district of Polokwane, Limpopo, to Tokyo in style. His is an unlikely fairytale even he couldn't have dreamt of not so long ago.

Yet such are the rewards for talented individuals who work hard at and respect their trade. That Mashele is now to live the dream of many a sportsperson is the reward reserved for athletes who heed the advice of their mentors and coaches.

"I was never worried about making the qualification time," Mashele said of booking a place in Team South Africa as the sole representative for the 5 000m race at the Olympic Games "I was just worried about whether South Africa would be able to organise a race for me to make that time."

Do not, however, misconstrue that as arrogance on the part of the multi-distance athlete who has had arguably the best season of his near decade-long running career. Far from it, for they don't come as humble as Mashele.

Even after his incredible 13:11.65 (a time well below the required 13:13.50 standard for qualification) run at Durban's Kings Park Stadium on the night of 30 June - a few hours before the deadline for qualification - Mashele was still his down-to-earth self, quick to acknowledge the role played by many in his qualification.

"ASA really supported me in getting this qualification," he said of the sport's national governing body, Athletics South Africa, which organised the race especially for him to qualify. "My club Boxer [Athletic Club] backed me all the way and my coach Hendrik Ramaala never doubted me, even at times when I was not really sure this was the way to go. And I wouldn't have done this without the guys who were my pacers on the night of qualification: Ryan Mphahlele, Nkosinathi Sibiya and Tumelo Mashaba were brilliant."

'I ran all the time'

Unlike many athletes, going to the Olympics is not that big a deal for Mashele. And while those around him were relieved at his qualification because "it would have been very painful for me if Precious had not qualified", the athlete himself is unfazed. "The Olympics were never a dream for me," he says in a stunningly blasé response.

Mashele took to running seriously around the time of Caster Semenya's impressive exploits at the Games in 2012.

"I was always good at running when I was back at home. And I loved it. I ran when they sent me to the shops, I ran when I went to school, I ran to church, I ran to my friend's homes. I ran all the time. And when I was doing grade 3, I would race against guys in grade 7 and beat them. Some people who saw me suggested that I try to join the Tuks running club, which had helped Caster, who is from Moletjie not too far from my home, become a star. We saved some money and I travelled to Pretoria to join the Sponge Group," he said, the running group trained by Michael Sponge Seme.

He remembers those early days with a chuckle. "As a boy from the village, I was used to running barefoot. But I'd taken my soccer boots with me and for my first race I ran in them and I beat Stephen Mokoka, in a 10km race. Coach Sponge was surprised but he recognised my potential and he worked on me and passed on very valuable lessons that have helped me to become the athlete I am now.

"I later met Coach Hendrik at the Cape Town Marathon and he invited me to join his camp. While I was doing well with Coach Sponge, there was something I was missing and I later found out that I was not really training well for my body. But I learnt a lot from Coach Sponge and Stephen mentored me and taught me how to handle the pain of running. I am the athlete I am because of all these men's teachings."

Financial responsibility

And what about the Olympics, Mashele, when did you really become aware of them and why aren't you super excited to be going there? "I did watch the Olympics and yes, it seemed like it is an exciting event. But for me, when I started running, all I wanted was to participate in marathons and make money. I saw how well financially Stephen was doing in those marathons he ran in Asia and I wanted to do that too."

The need to make money from the sport grew even more urgent when his mother died. "My father died a few years ago and in 2018, my mother died in my hands at the hospital. Before she died, she said to me that she had done her job and said it was now up to me to make sure I took care of my siblings." They were born in 1994, 1998 and 2006. "I knew after she died that I had to move up to the marathons if I was to be able to take care of them."

It is no wonder that Mashele targeted the 42.2km race as his event for Olympic qualification. But when the NN Hamburg Marathon was cancelled earlier this year and they couldn't get visas to go to other overseas races, Ramaala pushed him to try and qualify for the 5 000m.

Mashele was resistant at first. "But Coach Hendrik knows better because of his experience and when he saw that marathons were not going to happen, he insisted that we switch to the track."

Mashele had a fantastic season and won the national title in the 5 000m at the Championships in Pretoria earlier in the year, having already won it in 2019. In attempting to qualify for the Games, he narrowly missed the target after running a then personal best time of 13:18.70 in Coetzenburg, Cape Town, a few weeks before the Durban race.

'Means to an end'

In the build-up to all that, Mashele achieved a fantastic run at the 2020 World Athletics Half Marathon Championships in Poland. He ran an impressive 60:24 personal best to finish in 14th place. With Mokoka coming in seventh and Collin Mulaudzi in 23rd place, Team South Africa finished in a credible fifth position overall, a big feather in Mashele's cap.

Armed with confidence after that great run in Poland, he achieved a long-held dream of becoming national half-marathon champion in spectacular fashion by outsprinting his mentor and good friend, the revered Mokoka, in the last 500m of the race that took place in Gqeberha.

Ramaala had been against the national championships idea because it came slap bang in the middle of their track season and preparations for an assault on Olympic qualification. "His participation in the half marathon delayed us by two weeks because after it, he needed to recover. But he had to go because he needed the money." The prize money is R112 500 for the winner. "Precious is a breadwinner at home. The Covid pandemic robbed the athletes of races and opportunities to earn a living so I couldn't stop him from going to the half marathon. But once he'd recovered, I knew that he just needed good conditions and he'd qualify."

Qualify he did and now coach and athlete are looking at ensuring he reaches the final, where anything is possible. "For me, I see the Olympics as a means to an end. I am going there with the mentality that anything is possible. I am realistic and I am not thinking of a medal, although I will try for it. It is an opportunity for me to put myself out there. So the goal is to reach the final and hopefully make the top five. That way I will then get invitations to races and be paid for it so I can take care of my siblings. To be a top-five Olympian, even in the 5 000m, will open up doors for me. I would love to get invited to some of the top marathons as a pacer and get paid."

Too often when we see sports stars like Mashele, the national half-marathon champion and the king of the 5 000m in South Africa, we assume they are raking in money. But the reality is that they are having it tough and the challenge for the new ASA leadership is to bring in sponsors, as new president James Moloi promised he would, that will help change the athletes' lot in life.

"My retainer from Boxer is not enough," says Mashele. "My dream is to get a personal sponsor to supplement it."

A great showing at the Olympics in far away, high-tech Tokyo is sure to go a long way towards helping Mashele - a lad from the sleepy village of Ga-Maraba - realise that dream.

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