Amongst all of the elite athletes gathering at the World Championships in Doha, not many have a story quite like South African long jumper Luvo Manyonga. In 2012 his career looked to be over after he was banned for 18 months for failing a drugs test, something several athletes have done during their career as they look to gain an advantage by taking performance-enhancing drugs.
But Manyonga wasn’t taking drugs to enhance his athletic performance. He was addicted to crystal meth.
In his own words, he was just ‘five per cent away from death’ at his lowest point yet this week he will look to defend his crown as the men’s long jump world champion. It is a quite remarkable turnaround for an incredible athlete with the world record in his sights.
His turbulent journey to stardom began in his homeland. With an unquestionable talent, he became world junior long jump champion in 2010 before finishing fifth at his first senior World Championships the following year at the tender age of 20. By that point, though, he had already had his first experience of crystal meth.
In an interview with the Independent last year he explained: “I was just this nosey kid growing up, wanting to have fun, experience things. I was 18 when I first did it. I was with my friends, we had a little bit too much to drink and then things went overboard and we started trying things, everything.”
When things seemed to be going from strength-to-strength in the young star’s career, tragedy struck. His trainer and good friend, Mario Smith, died in a car crash on his way to training. This was made worse by the fact that Manyonga had been living with Smith to be closer to the national training complex and was left alone after his death.
It is perhaps too easy - naive even - to pin this as the pivotal moment for the long jumper, who was on the hunt for ‘fun’ from a young age.
“There was no one thing. I was just a kid in a township with money, wanting to have fun. I didn’t know that I was going to get hooked and become an addict and stuff like that. I got too caught up in it.
His 18-month ban came at the worst time as he missed the London Olympics as a consequence, but help would come from an unlikely source as he attempted to reverse the spiral. Irishman John McGrath, a conditioning coach, was holidaying in South Africa in 2010 and couldn’t bring himself to leave, such was his love for the country.
He caught wind of Manyonga’s talent and tracked him down after multiple trips to Mbekweni. In 2014, the coach told the African publication Mail & Guardian: “As far as I can tell, there are only two ways he can go: he’ll either be standing on an Olympic podium, or he’ll be dead from an overdose by the time he’s 30.”
He was right. Two years later he stepped onto the podium at Rio to collect his Olympic silver medal and he will look to go one better than that in Tokyo next year, having missed out on the gold by only a single centimetre in Brazil.
McGrath continued: “I have travelled to 57 countries around the world for one thing or another and never, in 30 years, have I seen someone as straightforwardly gifted as Luvo.”
This gift, along with the hard work he has put in over the last few years has taken him from promising youngster to world champion. His win at the World Championships in London in 2017 was the crowning glory of his career so far but defending his crown in Doha would quite possible beat that achievement.
Alongside 400m World Record holder Wayde van Niekerk, Manyonga is now South Africa’s shining light in athletics.
He added: “My life doesn’t depend on sport, because I’m also a human being. My every day is about trying to change someone’s life. I’m not ashamed to talk about my past, as long as it’s helping someone else.”
“I’m hoping others who are following me can say: it doesn’t matter the situation, it doesn’t have to be a substance — sometimes it’s life itself — and other people can use my experience to change their situation. I’m a person who has experienced all things: from nobody to someone.”
His is quite the redemption story.
- The 2019 World Athletics Championships take place in Doha from September 27 to October 6.