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ATHLETICS

Africa’s humble but hopeful star Letsile Tebogo on the prowl for more hardware at the World Championships

Africa’s humble but hopeful star Letsile Tebogo on the prowl for more hardware at the World Championships
Letsile Tebogo of Botswana celebrates after winning silver in the men’s 100m final at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary, on 20 August 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Robert Ghement)

Letsile Tebogo of Botswana made history on Sunday, 20 August, by becoming the first African man to make the podium for a 100m race at senior level. He’s hungry for more history in Hungary.

At major athletics events, the African continent’s success is largely associated with middle-distance and long-distance running.

With Jamaica and the US forming a duopoly of dominance over the decades, there has been little room for athletes of other countries to shine in the sprints.

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From left: Silver medallist Letsile Tebogo of Team Botswana, gold medallist Noah Lyles of Team United States, and Bronze medallist Zharnel Hughes of Team Great Britain at the medal ceremony for the men’s 100m final at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 2023. (Photo: Stephen Pond / Getty Images for World Athletics)

This is particularly true of the 100m. Or rather, it was true before Botswana’s sprint prodigy Letsile Tebogo entered the fray at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary.

The 20-year-old runner, born in the village of Kanye on the outskirts of Gaborone, announced his arrival on the senior sprint scene with a silver medal in the 100m race on Sunday, 20 August. He was pipped to gold by US’s Noah Lyles.

Nevertheless, Tebogo made history by becoming the first African man to medal over the distance. Lyles crossed the line in 9.83 seconds, with Tebogo second in 9.88 – a new national record for Botswana.

Ivory Coast’s Marie-Josée Ta Lou has done it before in the women’s category. She won silver in the 100m at the London-hosted World Championships in 2017. A few years prior, Ta Lou’s compatriot Murielle Ahouré-Demps also managed the feat.

Of course, before Tebogo surfed to silver in Budapest, South Africa’s Akani Simbine and Kenya’s Ferdinand Omanyala had been tipped to bring home Africa’s maiden medal in the men’s 100m.

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Silver medallist Letsile Tebogo of Team Botswana celebrates with gold medallist Noah Lyles of Team United States after competing in the men’s 100m final at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 2023. (Photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images for World Athletics)

With 2022’s 100m world champion Fred Kerley and Olympic champion Marcell Jacobs knocked out of the 2023 race in the semifinals, there was ample opportunity for Simbine and Omanyala to shine.

It was not to be for the duo. Simbine was disqualified from his semifinal following a false start. As for the continent’s record holder in the distance, Omanyala? The Kenyan finished a distant seventh in the race.

“It really shows that the continent has a lot of potential, looking at the likes of Ferdinand and Akani,” Tebogo said after his history-making run in Budapest.

“I really wanted them to have this medal before me. So that I can come up knowing that I have two African brothers who got this medal and they really motivate me going forward. But by the grace of God, I got it first.”

Rising star

Though his second-placed finish further highlighted Tebogo’s talent in the build-up to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, he is not new to winning.

While still a teenager in 2021, he lit up the World Athletics Under-20 Championships in Nairobi, Kenya. During that tournament, he became the first athlete from Botswana to win gold in the 100m on a global stage. He also picked up a silver in the 200m.

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Letsile Tebogo of Team Botswana and Reece Prescod of Team Great Britain compete in heat 4 of the men’s 100m at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 2023. (Photo: Shaun Botterill / Getty Images)

A year later, he would emulate this series of memorable performances. This time, in Colombia, he set the 100m world record for Under-20s. He crossed the finish line in an impressive 9.91 seconds to graduate to the senior circuit on a high.

In spite of his success, the youngster remains humble and refuses to be drawn into the hype surrounding him. Hype which already draws comparisons to the great Usain Bolt.

“I still have a long way to go. Hence, I am very patient. I hope for the best in every race because of all the hard work that I always put in,” he said after the junior championships in Colombia last year.

Eyes on the prize

Now Tebogo’s attention is firmly on the 200m, which takes place on Friday, 25 August. He will be hoping for another memorable outing in a contest he has dubbed his favourite.

Though he will once again have to contend with America’s Lyles who is the defending world champion after his success in Oregon last year. He will, however, have his pre-race ritual and memories of home to help him along.

“Most of the time, I just listen to music [to prepare for races],” Tebogo told CNN. “Traditional songs from Botswana, because they remind me of my roots and where I come from. It’s much easier for me to relax that way.”

He will be buoyed by the fact that he won the event as recently as June, during the Switzerland leg of the Diamond League. He beat Trinidad and Tobago’s Jereem Richards. Liberia’s Joseph Fahnbulleh was third in that event.

The youngster, who started off playing soccer before settling for athletics a few years ago, also holds the African record in the distance after recently beating Namibian sprinter Frankie Fredericks’s 26-year-old record.

Africa shines

Burkina Faso’s Hugues Fabrice Zango also grabbed the spotlight in Hungary as he earned his first global title in the men’s triple jump. He was flanked by two Cubans on the podium.

The 30-year-old, France-based athlete, who already holds an Olympic bronze and world silver and bronze, completed his collection with the best of all colours at the World Championships.

He took an early lead, lost it, and regained it with his penultimate effort of 17.64m.

Silver went to 25-year-old Lázaro Martinez (25) on 17.41m, with his teammate Cristian Nápoles (24) earning bronze with a personal best of 17.40m. DM

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