With the nation anticipating a potential medal haul from swimmers, sprinters and rowers at the Rio Olympics, a race walker from Pretoria is quietly lifting himself into medal contention one step at a time.
Lebogang Shange is not a well-known athlete in his home country, but if he achieves his goal of reaching the podium at the Games, in seven months his name could be splashed across headlines throughout the world.
“My goal is to finish in the top three, and this is what I’m working so hard for at the moment, to bring about a change in race walking,” Shange said on Thursday.
“I want to be the first black man in the world to medal (in a walking event) at the Olympics. That would be a big thing. It’s history in the making.”
The 25-year-old athlete, who is based at the Tuks-HPC, broke SA records over 3 000m, 5 000m and 20 000m on the track last season, and improved his own national record to 1:21:43 when he finished 11th at the IAAF World Championships over his specialist 20km distance on the road.
Proving he could build on that form in 2016, he clocked the fastest ever 10 000m time by a South African on the track on Thursday, covering the distance in 39:54.24 on the sidelines of an international training camp in Canberra, Australia.
Though Shange completed the 25-lap race 38 seconds quicker than the 21-year-old SA record held by his coach, Chris Britz (40:32.78), the performance could not be considered for record purposes as it was hand-timed.
His effort, nonetheless, was more than a minute faster than his previous personal best of 41:02.92.
Shange finished just eight seconds behind World Championships bronze medallist Ben Thorpe of Canada, who won the race in 39:46.53, while South African ultra-distance specialist Marc Mundell also set a personal best, crossing the line further down the field in 43:03 (his official time was unavailable).
The two-month Canberra camp, which Shange also attended early last year, hosted a number of the world’s top walkers, including Australian Jared Tallent, a three-time Olympic medallist.
“I’ve had a good training camp with international guys like Jarred Tallent, my role model, and Ben (Thorpe),” he said.
“They have guys here from all over the world and I’ve learned a lot from them.”
Shange was expected to turn out in the Australian Race Walking Championships later this month, bringing a close to the lengthy camp.
He would then continue to mirror his 2016 campaign, with another camp on the cards in Europe before the Rio Games in August.
In the lead-up to Rio, he hoped to perform well at the Race Walking World Cup in Rome in May and defend his title at the African Athletics Championships in Durban in June.
“I just need to train hard and do better than last year, but it will require more effort, focus and discipline,” he said.
He also hoped for a smoother build-up than he experienced ahead of last year’s global showpiece in Beijing, after visa issues forced him to travel back and forth, and he wanted SA officials to help organise his travel documents while he was in camp in Europe ahead of the Games.
“If I can do all those things, and receive the assistance I need, I’ll be fine,” said Shange, who had already qualified for the Rio spectacle.
“I’m willing to train hard, and when I get to Rio I will do my best to make myself and the rest of my country proud.”