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Siphiwo Mahala

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Flying Horse

When I went to the University of Fort Hare twenty years ago, I was torn between doing sport or literature. You see, both presented prospects of being popular among the girls. I was still in a desperate quest to be noticed by girls.

I had a certain measure of success in sport during my school days. I did karate from age nine and I had been the captain of my soccer team from age sixteen. It was probably in running that I boasted the most significant successes, having represented the Eastern Province twice in cross-country championships in 1993 and 1994 respectively.

In literature, well, I had written a few poems—poems of a romantic kind. The problem was that I had not met a girl good enough to deserve them. And there was also this chronic fear for girls that troubled me. I think someone invented a word for it— Caligynephobia.

Running was seasonal as a result the popularity of runners at school often fizzled out after the Easter holidays. So literature won, but I kept my poetry to myself. I didn’t want too much destruction on my first year of university. I did not participate in any sport other than playing for my village soccer team on weekends.

On Athletics Day in 1995, I watched from the stand as athletes strutted across the field with their legs glistening with over-applied Rubbing Stuff. Some even had bandages where they were not injured. There was one particular athlete named Tony, who ran 5000m, 3000m and 1400m consecutively and won all of them quite comfortably.

I found myself saying, “I’ll beat all these people next year.”

“What?” responded my friend and homeboy, Kaizer, who did not know much about my running.

“I said,” I reiterated in a deliberate and consciously emphatic tone. “I’ll beat all of these runners next year.” What followed was uproarious laughter from my friends who thought a few more screws had gone loose in my head. Between the guffaws, Kaizer said, “Horses will grow wings and fly!”

A year passed and my poetry had not impressed anyone so I had no choice but to start training for the 1500m race. Crowds started gathering by the poolside adjacent to the stadium whenever I was training in the track field. The sight of a black man furiously chasing the wind was quite amusing. Word went round that there was a new top runner in town.

I was with my cousin Vuyo, when we bumped into Tony a week before the Athletics Day. He asked Tony if I could run at all. Tony said something to the effect that I was the only one who could give him competition on campus. My cousin was astonished. I went to bed smiling.

On the day of the athletics, I sat in the stands watching, again. The 5000m race started and finished, but Tony was not there. The 3000 also took place, but Tony was not there either. About 40 minutes before the start of the 1500m race, I got up to do warm-up.
My friend Kaizer refused to look after my clothes. His argument was simple — he didn’t want to associate with the disgraced guy. He said I couldn’t make a fool of myself in the track field and come back to get my tracksuits from him. I left my clothes unattended and went behind the stadium where I had intensive warm up for about 30 minutes.

I came back to the track field a few minutes before the race, with rivers of perspiration running down my face. There was a raucous cheering from the stand and, as I turned to acknowledge the warm reception, I saw Tony donning a new kit and strutting across the field coming to the start—the same way I saw him doing the previous year.

Like the star that he was, he shook hands to acknowledge other athletics, starting with me. When a fan shouted that they had been waiting for him to do his magic, he said, “Don’t look at me alone, watch this man as well (pointing at me).”

The gun starter went off and I bolted out of the start line like a bullet. There was laughter and jeering from the crowd. I knew what they found so amusing. We had some clowns called “pace-setters” who would start a race with the serious runners, run a few metres very fast and collapse on the side.

I took the second lap with the same pace. There was less laughter. And then silence. The silence was soon followed by loud cheers and I knew that they realised that I was no pace-setter. I was on the third lap when I heard a familiar voice saying “The time, chase the time, my brother.” When I looked my suspicions were confirmed. It was Tony.

I increased the pace as I started the last lap, opened my strides and swung my arms in a comfortable cadence when I was 140m away from finish, and sprinted when I was 60m away until I crossed the finish line. I had trained the course and the technique. I clocked 3:41 for the distance, a time that could have booked me a place in the Olympics on a different day.

The joyous singing, chanting and ululation were accompanied by a clinking sound. And it happened to me. Finally. Girls were dangling their room keys, inviting me to come over. I was a hero. One girl called Zukiswa, whose room I had visited before, was brave enough to come to me and say, “You are a flying horse.”

“I wish it was your roommate saying that,” I said inside.


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