Luvo Manyonga was overjoyed with the silver long jump medal awarded him at the Rio Olympic Games this week. But the track and field star from Mbekweni township in South Africa has soared over obstacles more than once.
Manyongo grew up in a single parent household in a township still struggling to provide regular services of water, sanitation and electricity.
Drugs, guns and violence are never far from the world of young people without jobs or prospects. A few years ago, Manyonga was on the verge of becoming another statistic of this cycle of life.
At his lowest point, Manyonga was on the verge of death, he said.
“I can honestly say that I hit rock bottom,” he told the City-Press, a South African newspaper, before the Games. “My life was a living hell after I was banned for using drugs and the way I was behaving was a one-way route towards self-destruction.
“I have done things of which I am truly ashamed, like burglaries, stealing mobile phones just to get money to buy the drug. You lose all perception of what is right or wrong. All that matters is to get your fix.”
In 2015, Manyonga moved from Mbekweni to Pretoria and a once-promising career was back on track. His talent for the long jump was soon identified and a local coach set about guiding Manyonga towards a professional career.
By the time he reached Rio, he had shaken off using “tik” – methamphetamine – and in five long jumps, reached his personal best at 8.37 meters, just the smallest fraction away from the winning 8.38 earned by Jeff Henderson of the U.S.
“I have risen from my demons … they’ve been trying for years to pull me down, but now I made it,” Manyonga said. “My life already changed before I came here … this is just a bonus. I can’t even describe it … just look at my face.”
Meanwhile, over a dozen African-born athletes are competing on their adopted country’s teams. Yasemin Can, born in Kenya as Vivian Jemutai, now runs for Turkey in track and field.
Asia’s fastest man is the Nigerian-born Femi Ogunode running for Qatar and another Nigerian-born runner, Ezinne Okparaebo will fly Norway’s flag in the 100m race. Kemi Adekoya and Abubakar Abbas, other Nigerian exports, will represent Bahrain in the 400m race. Bahrain will equally have seven Ethiopian adoptees in Rio, reports the Quartz news site.