Tragedy of pioneering black runners who vanished once their running days were over

21 April 2019 - 01:27 By Duane Heath (TimesLIVE archive) and Staff Reporter

Gabashane Vincent Rakabaele was born in Lesotho on September 3 1948. In 1976 he became the first black man to win the Two Oceans marathon. He went on to represent his country at two Olympic Games and became a fixture in the Two Oceans, which he completed more than a dozen times.
In 2010, media outlets reported that Rakabaele had died the previous year, but when sportswriter Duane Heath went in search of the runner he'd met years before, he found that his life had ended much earlier.
On a green hill in the Lesotho highlands, Heath found a modest grave with a heart-shaped headstone which, as he wrote in the Sunday Times on March 28 2010: "revealed that Rakabaele did not die a few days, or even weeks, before my arrival. He was buried on November 2 2003 by his brother Michael, also a Two Oceans medallist.
"Michael sketched a tragic picture of Vincent's final years: of suddenly giving up running to return to his family, only for his wife to leave him and his only daughter to disappear to Maseru, never to return.
"But what I couldn't figure out was how a man who had won nine ultra-marathon gold medals had no-one to turn to when he fell ill. Neighbours spoke of debilitating knee and joint pain, others of fever, and some of pills from the local clinic that neither Vincent nor Michael could afford."
As Heath wrote, the tragedy was not only Rakabaele's death and that it went unmarked for so long, but that he could not or would not seek help from the running fraternity, which had not forgotten his achievements.
"Rakabaele ran the marathon at the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games, although he is synonymous with the Two Oceans. In 1976 he outsprinted the great Alan Robb to win by six seconds to set a record of 3hr 18min 5sec and raise the profile of an event first staged in 1970. He was second in 1978 and won the 1979 race in 3:08:56. It was a record bettered only in 1987 by the late Thompson Magawana."
"Vincent was a 2:12 marathoner in the days of no drugs," Comrades legend Bruce Fordyce told Heath when news of Rakabaele's death reached the public. "It's terribly sad that particularly some of the pioneering black runners vanished once their running days were over. I've continued to run even though I'm not winning, but for a lot of ageing black runners it's no longer viable. I can imagine how Vincent would never be heard from again. The last time I saw him was in 1997 at a half-marathon between Ladybrand and Maseru. I thought I'd won the veterans' until I saw Vincent sitting on the grass at the finish. He'd beaten me by 10 minutes!"
Robb, whose duels with Rakabaele in the Comrades, Two Oceans and the Korkie ultra-marathons are still remembered, said: "Everybody just assumed he'd gone back to Lesotho. It's what happened to a lot of good black runners from those years, guys like Johannes Thobejane. I don't know why, but they all seemed to disappear and no-one kept in touch."

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