Hezekiel Sepeng – a South African Olympic pioneer
12 August 2016
You can also listen to these podcasts directly from the Old Mutual app, which is available here.
Brad Brown: You’re listening to Old Mutual Live, great things start here, great things start now. I’m super chuffed to have our next guest on the podcast, particularly now we are smack bang in the middle of the Olympic Games. It’s someone who is no stranger to the Olympics, he forms a big part of South Africa’s Olympic history. He has an Olympic Silver Medal to his name in the 800m, Hezekiel Sepeng joins us now. Hezekiel, welcome, thanks for joining us.
Hezekiel Sepeng: Thank you very much for inviting me for the interview.
BB: Hezekiel, 1996, can you believe it’s 20 years? All of a sudden I feel incredibly old, it seems like yesterday.
HS: I also feel incredibly old, but I refuse to think like that!
BB: Can you believe, it’s hard to believe 20 years, it’s gone by so quickly.
HS: It’s quick, I can’t believe it also. When I’m sitting here thinking, back then in 1996, it’s 20 years and I’m still around, seeing other athletes that are going to compete at the Olympic Games.
BB: Sitting back here now watching this, do you, deep down, think gee, I wish I was there. Is it a time of your life that you look back on with fondness or did you race all you had and you’ve had enough? It’s now someone else’s time to deal with that pressure?
HS: No, I’ve made peace with it, I’ve done my part. When it comes to participating for South Africa and I’ve done pretty well. I’ve done three Olympic Games, which I’ve made three of them consecutively in the finals, 1996, 2000 and 2004 in Athens. So I don’t regret. It’s time now for the young ones to go out and represent South Africa.
What makes the Games so special
BB: And prove themselves…the Olympic Games is special, as an athlete. You’ve raced at World Championship level, but there’s something unique about an Olympics, for you, what makes the Games special?
HS: It’s the training, it comes after four years. All the training you put there, preparing for the Games. It’s something that, for me, it’s a special one for me. The World Champs, you can get it after every two years. If you make a mistake on this one World Champs, you can rectify it after two years. But the Olympics you have to wait four years. It’s special, knowing that you are training for four years for something and anything can happen there.
BB: 800m, it’s a tough discipline, it’s arguably one of the hardest. Because 1 500m, you obviously pace yourself a bit, 800m you’re pretty much going flat box for two laps. Caster Semenya is in incredible nick, she’s looking phenomenal, she’s running well. I don’t want to put too much pressure on her, but she’s got a very good chance of winning Gold at the Rio Games.
HS: Yeah, 800m, for me it’s one of those types of events, each and every athlete can say it isn’t the tough one. But the 800m, you need that balance of being a good middle distance and being a good 400m sprint. Caster Semenya, she’s doing very well and we’re hoping that she will continue doing what she’s done in the Diamond League in Europe and go and get that Gold Medal. On paper now, as you speak now, she’s a clear favourite to win that Gold Medal.
BB: She’s in phenomenal form and let’s hope that she does step up to the plate because that medal is waiting for her. Hezekiel, let’s talk about you now, 20 years on from Atlanta. You mentioned three Olympic Games, Atlanta wasn’t your last Olympics. You were competing for a good few years after that. But what are you up to these days? I know you’re very involved with Athletics South Africa, you’re coaching yourself. What keeps you busy these days Hezekiel?
Using Street Athletics to help develop talent
HS: I’m here at Athletics South Africa as an Athlete Co-ordinator. Assisting athletes on their preparation. On the other side I’m also coaching at the UJ university, the young athletes that I’m coaching there. Sometimes there’s projects that I’m running, I’ve founded a project called Street Athletics.
Where we go into rural areas or most disadvantaged streets where there’s no track and field there, then we do athletics on the street. By doing that, we identify the talent and trying to improve the lives of the young South Africans via athletics.
BB: I love that and I want to dig a bit deeper into that Street Athletics. Because that’s what I wanted to ask you about. Back in the day when you were racing there were lots of Street Miles. I see there’s a few more popping up. There’s one in Tembisa, the Tembisa Street Mile. Donald from Modern Athlete is very involved in that, there’s a few others as well.
We’ve got incredible talent in this country, talent is not the issue, I’m sure you’d agree with me Hezekiel. We’ve got youngsters that are up there with the best in the world. The problem comes in finding those youngsters, nurturing them and building them up through the age groups. Getting them into the senior ranks where we should be dominating and that’s what this does, Street Athletics, I think it’s a phenomenal thing.
HS: It’s a great idea. As you say now, there’s more Street Miles that are coming up. The one in Stellenbosch, the one in Knysna, we’ve got the one here in Tembisa. I think more will come now of those competitions where we can identify those athletes on the street.
My project also basically, it’s mainly for the young athletes, the youth especially in the townships. Where there is no track where they can compete and we just go into the street, we’ll put 100m, 200m, it depends on the length of the street. We’ve done pretty well up to now. I’ve done one in Venda where it was dedicated to my late friend. I’ve done in Krugersdorp, I’ve done in the Western areas, it’s a few provinces that I’ve done the project.
How Hezekiel now keeps fit
BB: It sounds incredible and definitely doing some great things. Then from a recreational running point of view, Hezekiel, do you still run at all? I know your racing days are over, but to keep fit, or have you had enough of it? Do you still run at all?
HS: I do jog sometimes, but probably once in a month. Then after that, it’s not easy because I can’t run slow! Once I start jogging, there’s a point where I tend to go a little bit faster and my brain starts telling me I can be fast. But then I start hurting myself and I stop and ask myself: What are you doing to your body now. I’d rather do other sports also like soccer, playing soccer just to keep fit.
BB: We’re not going to see Hezekiel Sepeng making the step up to the marathon distance, possibly going on and doing the Old Mutual Two Oceans and possibly Comrades?
HS: My mind is still blocked on the two lap, when I think about running kilometres, for me it’s pretty long. Probably in future I’ll just go for fun, but at the moment I’m kind of busy with all these projects that I’m doing now.
BB: I’m going to put the invitation out there Hezekiel, if you ever decide you want to come hang out with the slow runners, I will take you and guide you through a Comrades Marathon. We’ll put a leash on you so we can hold you back, but you’ll have tons of fun, it’ll be a good day out!
HS: I will do that, once the time comes.
BB: Hezekiel, thank you so much for sharing your memories of the Olympics. Enjoy the rest of the Games, I can literally – and I’m sure you’re the same – can sit down and watch the entire thing from start to finish. It’s one of my favourite sporting events on the calendar and like you, I’m also wishing Team South Africa all the best.
HS: For me, I can’t wait to sit down and watch the Olympics on TV and hopefully South Africa will do us proud, all the athletes that are participating there. I also wish them well and they must go out there and do their country proud.