T he best sports stories revolve around the underdog, the fighter who gets back up, and the athlete who returns from obscurity to reclaim international glory.
One of the greatest such tales of our time has yet to be written, resting unscripted in Pretoria, and the plot could go either way before the conclusion is finally penned – a sorry fable of what might have been, or a classic epic that will be told for many years to come. One of South Africa’s most exciting track and field talents lies in wait in Pretoria, where he is expected to make his season debut at a league meeting today.
And if Luvo Manyonga delivers anything near what he has already proved capable, a new chapter will be written. It could be the start of a story about a world-class long jumper who clawed his way back from drug addiction to claim his rightful place among the global elite.
Manyonga first leapt over the 8m barrier as a teenager, and in 2010 he shattered Khotso Mokoena’s SA junior record with a leap of 8.19m in Bottrop, before winning the world junior title in Moncton.
The following year, at the age of 20, he produced a personal best of 8.26m at a meeting in Finland, and gave a superb performance to finish fifth at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea.
Entering the 2012 season as a medal contender for the London Olympics, Manyonga showed early form with a jump of 8m in Stellenbosch, before his campaign was cut short when he tested positive for methamphetamine (crystal meth) and was banned for 18 months.
After his suspension was lifted, reports revealed Manyonga was locked in a deep-fought battle with the recreational drug, trapped in the Mbekweni township in the Western Cape.
To make matters worse, his coach and mentor Mario Smith died in a car accident in June 2014, seemingly hammering another nail into the coffin of what was once a promising career.
Having decided to leave home in order to get away from bad influences, Manyonga has been given a second chance in a Sascoc-funded operation which aims to get him back on his feet at the High Performance Centre (HPC) in the capital.
With countrymen Zarck Visser, Ruswahl Samaai and Khotso Mokoena already forming a powerful trio in the long jump discipline ahead of Rio, Manyonga has the potential to upset the applecart and spring a surprise at the Games.
If not, the hope is that he will at least show glimpses of his former self and find satisfaction in a new life, far from the dejected haze he has floated through over the last few years. Manyonga needs stability and motivation. He also needs security and distance from a drug that nearly stole his dreams, and potentially his life.
At the HPC he will have all these things, and it will be up to him to ensure he utilises these tools to re-shape his future. Only Manyonga can write his own story. The rest of us must wait in anticipation to discover the outcome.