Luvo Manyonga has already created my favourite story of the year but, on a gentle summer afternoon in Pretoria, the South African long jumper is just getting started. At the Rio Olympics in August, Manyonga conjured up a dizzying leap when he transformed the desperate grind of poverty and drug addiction into a beautifully shiny silver medal and soothing redemption. It proved he had overcome the bleak hold that crystal meth once exerted over his township life.
Manyonga now looks like a million dollars. He might be wearing only a vest, shorts and flip-flops but he gleams with health at the University of Pretoria’s High Performance Centre – 900 miles from the meth dens of Mbekweni in the Cape. Manyonga talks with a Bolt-like conviction which only a gifted young athlete can carry off with style when he smiles as easily as this reborn Olympian.
“I can be the best jumper in the world right now,” the 25-year-old says with an assured grin. “It won’t take me long. By next year you will see flames.”
A former Irish street-sweeper and Coney Island strongman has played a significant role in this incredible story. John McGrath went “looking for Luvo” in 2013, at a time when Manyonga was a lost soul and few people outside his family seemed to care whether the athlete survived. McGrath eventually tracked him down and, after a few hard years of working together, Manyonga found the strength within himself to start jumping again.
I had spent the previous day with McGrath and Manyonga’s family in Mbekweni – an hour’s drive from Cape Town. I tell Manyonga now that, before I left the township, McGrath said he was certain his friend would become the greatest long jumper in history. “Yes, I believe that,” Manyonga says. “I was born in 1991 – the same year the [current] world record was set [8.95m by Mike Powell]. So I think it is a calling for me.”
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery advances Columbia University’s historical, critical, and creative engagement with the visual arts. Serving as both a laboratory and a forum, The Wallach Art Gallery offers opportunities for curatorial practice and discourse, while bridging the diverse approaches to the arts at the University with a welcome broader public. (The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery)