Six weeks ago Mbulaeni Mulaudzi was ‘fed up’. Fed up that he had been unable to recover his form after illness and injuries had knocked him off his stride in his build up towards the World Championships here. So he packed his bags, left Europe, and returned home to South Africa.
What he didn’t know then was that his decision would lead him to his greatest triumph in a long 800m career which has embraced gold medals at the World Indoor Championships and Commonwealth Games.
Mulaudzi’s fourth place in the Golden League meeting in Rome, on 10 July, convinced him that he should head back to Johannesburg. “People asked me: ‘Why are you going home?’ And I said: “I’m fed up, I need to go home to my wife, my family, and my coach and maybe it will be better if I train with my coach every day.’ It really worked.”
It really did.
In beating Kenya’s defending champion Alfred Kirwa Yego, who had won Mulaudzi’s bag-packing 800m race in Rome, the South African completed a double for his country after Caster Semenya’s victory in the women’s two-lap race. They are South Africa’s only two gold medals from these championships.
Before coming here, Mulaudzi had not raced since Rome. Back in May and June, when he suffered flu and back and hamstring injuries, he thought his World Championships summer might be heading for disaster in the way it had many times before. Although he was an Olympic silver medallist in 2004, and has two world indoor silver medals to go with his gold, the outdoor World Championships have been troubled waters.
Either side of his bronze medal in 2003, the 28-year-old Mulaudzi had failed to gain a top-five place in three other attempts. “I have been around for a long time and today I am very happy, very grateful for this gold medal,” he said. “I have tried so many times to get a gold medal in the outdoors.
“Everything didn’t go well for the past few championships – I got injuries, I got sick – and today is the most important achievement in my life.
“Even this year, in May and June, I had so many difficulties. I had flu in May, training in the rain and it was cold. I was out for two and a half weeks. I got back into training, trained hard and injured my back and my hamstring. I came to Europe to try to run but it didn’t work out so I decided after Rome to go back to South Africa to train with my coach and be with my family.”
Under the scrutiny of his coach, JP van der Merwe, at the University of Johannesburg Stadium, slowly but surely the model of a 2009 world champion was constructed. “We agreed that the only way to have a good race was to be in control because, normally in a championship, they run very slow and wait for the last kick,” Mulaudzi said.
Having led at the bell, Mulaudzi stayed ahead down the back straight, and proved an immovable object in the run for home. “I made a long kick, from 200m, and it worked,” Mulaudzi said. “Technically it was a great day for me – my race plan was perfect.”
Just as his repeated efforts to gain an outdoor World Championships gold has finally paid off, so Mulaudzi hopes that he can crown his career with a first Olympic gold in London in 2012. The head of the Games, Sebastian Coe, is one of two 800m runners he has looked up to over the years.
“I will still be competing in 2012,” Mulaudzi said. “I’ll be 31 by then but I feel that I am getting stronger, looking at the training sessions I have been doing for the past few years compared to now. And I’m more mature and more disciplined.
“London will be my last Olympics. Hezekiel Sepeng has always been my hero but when I look at Sebastian Coe’s career it inspires me. I really admire the guy, looking at the times he was running and the championships he won. He was a very good, tactical runner.”
When Mulaudzi met Sepeng, his South African countryman, for the first time in 2000, his nerve failed him. Sepeng, the 1996 Olympic 800m silver medallist, was idolised by Mulaudzi but the raw young prospect did not have the pluck to tell him that he was his hero.
Two years after that meeting in Johannesburg they met again. This time it was in Paris, where they shared a hotel room at a Golden League meeting. "He told me when he was a student that he wanted to be like me," recalled Sepeng. "He never thought he was going to beat me." But Mulaudzi did just that the very next day.
Mulaudzi has been beating the world’s top 800m runners ever since – only not at outdoor World Championships. At least not until today.
David Powell for the IAAF