Social concerns keep Yawa out in front
XOLILE Yawa is a triumphant exception in a sport in which a distressing number of former champions succumb to poverty and alcoholism after retiring from competitive athletics.
With his 50th birthday approaching, Yawa is co-owner of Carecure, a hospital management company active in four provinces.
Born in Lady Frere in the Eastern Cape, Yawa felt a strong sense of social responsibility from an early age. He recalls that as a young man he felt he was carrying the aspirations of the Eastern Cape when he competed.
In the early 1980s, when SA athletics was enjoying a golden era, the Eastern Cape was the poor relation of the erstwhile Transvaal and Western Transvaal, whose powerful teams were dominated by athletes from the gold mines. Chief among these athletes was Matthews Temane.
Yawa's rivalry with Temane was characterised by deep respect. He idolised Temane, though he was two years his senior. "I found Matthews without arrogance and approachable. We had long chats about running and he would help with a running tip here, a training programme there."
Yawa at first felt overshadowed by Temane: "Matthews won so many races with his famous kick."
He noticed while running for the President Brand mine in the Free State that Temane was vulnerable in longer distances.
Adopting devastating front-running tactics that became his trademark, Yawa got the better of Temane over 10000m.
After a breakthrough SA title in 1985, Yawa went on to win a record nine national 10000m titles.
This, plus 13th place in the 1992 Olympic 10000m final and a Berlin marathon victory confirm Yawa as one of the greats.
In 1987, Yawa set two SA 10000m records and inflicted a crushing defeat early in the year on Temane and Matthews "Loop en Val" Motshwarateu in the Momentum Life half-marathon in Bedfordview.
Though beaten by Temane in the celebrated 21.1km world record race in East London six months later, Yawa's winning time of 62min 32sec in Bedfordview set the tone of this most memorable year for SA athletics.
Yawa is outspoken about the current malaise in SA distance running and the failure of local athletes to keep in contact with international standards.
"We could compete with the Kenyans and Ethiopians if our full pool of athletic talent was harnessed.
"There are many kids out there who could be world champions if they were given the chance," he says.
Yawa is nevertheless heartened by the initiatives launched by sports minister Fikile Mbalula. "He is doing the right thing by taking sport back to the schools," he says. He also believes the SA National Defence Force and universities have a greater role to play.
Work pressure means Yawa no longer has time to run but his social conscience and love of the sport is undiminished.
He has started a project, Legendary Athletes of SA, catering to the social welfare of former athletes, coaches and officials.
"Some athletes are so poor when they die there is not even enough money to bury them," he says wistfully.
Richard Mayer is author of Three Men Named Matthews: Memories of the Golden Age of SA Athletics