ATLANTA — He screamed as he crossed the finish line, a howl that seemed loud enough to bring down a wall. Which, in many ways, was what he had just done. How did this happen? Going into the final turn, Hezekiel Sepeng, a small-boned man, weighing no more than 130 pounds, was boxed in, almost last. Too many runners in front of him. Too little room to move. Were you a betting man, you would have figured on a slow, defeated fade, where the Olympian limps across the line and drops to his knees in tears.
You would have been wrong.
Sometimes you run for yourself, sometimes you run for everybody else. The man in the avocado green track suit was carrying a nation on his slim shoulders, and millions of his people were back in South Africa now, glued to their TV sets at 2:40 in the morning, calling his name. What choice did he have? How could he give up? As the runners came around that turn, Hezekiel Sepeng began to move.
He passed one man, then another, but he was still on the inside lane and was on the heels of fifth place. There was no time to waste. No time to see how the others shook out, if they would give him a opening. Sepeng bolted — to the outside. For a moment, he was running sideways!
“What’s he doing?” his countrymen yelled. . . .
What’s he doing? It was not so long ago that Sepeng was hearing that back in South Africa, as the only black runner at an all-white high school. He had been brought there by a short, balding coach named J.P. van der Merwe, who noticed the kid running barefoot around a filthy soccer field in his poor township, 100 miles southwest of Johannesburg.
“You run well,” the coach told Sepeng. “I might be able to arrange a scholarship at Boy’s High.”
“But that’s a white school,” Sepeng said.
Van der Merwe gave Sepeng his first pair of shoes. He drove him home after school, to the dilapidated farm where his family lived, a place with no electricity and no plumbing.
In his first race at Boy’s High, the whites called Sepeng “kaffir,” the n-word of South Africa — and they elbowed him when he ran the track. They boxed him in. They blocked him out.
They did everything but catch him.
Now he was racing for all of them . . . The final seconds
Past the fourth-place runner now. Past the third. The crowd was on its feet, roaring. With 20 meters to go in the 800, Sepeng was on the far outside
— almost in his own race — and his arms swung wildly and his face contorted in pain. Still he gained speed. There were two men ahead of him, a Kenyan and a Norwegian. Ten meters. He pulled even with the Kenyan. Five meters. He passed the Kenyan. Two meters. He was on the heels of first place . . .
South Africa had never had a black Olympic medalist. Until four years ago, it had never had a black Olympian. This is a country in which apartheid was policy, where white reigned supreme, where blacks were restricted, curfewed, beaten, denied a vote. This is a nation that jailed Nelson Mandela for most of his life, that killed Steven Biko by pounding him to a bloody pulp in a prison cell. We’re not talking 100 years ago, or 50 years ago.
We’re talking the last decade.
In places like this, sports can be so important, because it cuts across all lines, it makes people forget color. As he grew older and faster — and his country finally abolished apartheid, and opened its elections — Hezekiel Sepeng, all of 5-feet-7, became an ambassador of hope.
These were his first Olympics. He was only 22, still new to racing, still prone to mistakes. At the world championships in 1993, he got boxed in during a semifinal and was in danger of elimination. Johnny Gray, the American 800-meter star, moved over and yelled at Sepeng to sprint ahead.
“He told me it was because I was a black man from South Africa,” Sepeng would later explain, “and that a lot of people were interested in what I did. He also told me not to count on it happening again.”
On Wednesday night, one of the runners he passed down the stretch: Johnny Gray. The final result
Hezekiel Sepeng did not win the gold. He finished less than two-tenths of a second behind the Norwegian, Vebjoern Rodal. Had the race been another 10 feet, it would have had a different result.
Not that it mattered. Here, in a misty rain, history had been made. A black man had won an Olympic medal for South Africa. Sepeng grabbed a flag from one of his countrymen — the new flag, of a country that recognized that a man is a man — and he draped himself inside it and ran around the track.
“I am happy to be a South African,” he exclaimed, in the tunnel underneath the Olympic Stadium. “In sports, we are all together.
“The time is my best ever. That is the present I give to myself. The medal, I give to my country.”
Back in his hometown, his parents watched on television. He could not call them, because they do not own a phone. Still, they know how he feels. They saw it in his eyes, in his smile, in his flapping the flag behind him.
And finally, they saw it when the official took the silver medal and draped it around his neck.
Sometimes you run for yourself, sometimes you run for everybody. Hezekiel Sepeng stood up straight, and in a cleansing rain, held his medal high for the whole world to see. Somewhere in the distance you heard a wall come tumbling down.