It's not long-jumper Luvo Manyonga’s athletic ability that impresses most. No, it’s his journey, his story, which could have had a grim ending.
Few sporting tales can rival Manyonga’s transformation from crystal meth addict to Olympic medallist.
And much of that recovery is down to an Irishman, John McGrath, whose intervention, at a key stage, ensured the South African’s talent, his life, didn’t go gentle into that good night.
So Manyonga’s first visit to Ireland — to compete in this evening’s BAM Cork City Sports — has added significance for the world champion: Waterford strongman McGrath’s influence in his life will never be forgotten.
“When I was at my lowest with drugs, he reached out and I’m thankful to him,” says Manyonga.
Manyonga is the most accomplished athlete to compete in Ireland for years: at his best, the 28-year-old can soar 8.65 metres (or more than 28 feet) in a single bound. At Cork IT tonight, many will marvel at his athletic artistry, an outlier among outliers, but it’s his off-track tale that captivates most.
As he puts it: “My life doesn’t depend on sport, because I’m also a human being. My every day is about trying to change someone’s life. I’m not ashamed to talk about my past, as long as it’s helping someone else.”
And it’s quite a past. Manyonga grew up in Mbekweni, a poverty-stricken township in Paarl, 40 miles north-east of Cape Town. He was raised primarily by his mother, Joyce, and his talent for athletics was first spotted by coach Mario Smith.
Smith guided Manyonga to his first major victories — the African junior title in 2009; world junior title in 2010 — but Smith was unable to save Manyonga from his surroundings.
In 2011, at the age of 19, Manyonga jumped an astonishing 8.26m and he was shaping up as a gold medal contender for the London Olympics. But he never made it there.
In his teenage years, Manyonga started smoking tik, the township name for crystal meth and, when he began to earn decent money from athletics, he could pay for a full-blown addiction.
In March 2012, he tested positive for metamphetamine while in-competition. Manyonga was banned for 18 months after admitting he took the drug for non-performance-enhancing purposes.
After that, he was cut adrift, the sporting authorities in South Africa turning their back on his talent and his clearly perilous situation.
By 2014, he was back training, but in June that year, his long-time coach died in a car crash. Despite Manyonga’s devastation, his addiction held such a grip that he missed Smith’s memorial service, after getting high with fellow addicts.
But the tide would soon turn, thanks, in no small part, to McGrath.
The Waterford native had been Irish ‘rower of the year’ in 1999, but a chronic back injury laid waste to his career. McGrath turned to martial arts and, in 2008, he fell in love with a South African woman and moved to Paarl, in the Western Cape.
While in Colombia, as a coach to South Africa’s tug-of-war team, McGrath was told about Manyonga’s situation. Upon returning to Paarl, McGrath set off in search of him, keen to help him find a way back to sport. That he did, Manyonga eventually returning to long-jumping, despite several relapses with crystal meth.
In a 2014 feature with The Mail & Guardian, McGrath was asked about his future: “As far as I can tell, there are only two ways he can go: he’ll either be standing on an Olympic podium, or he’ll be dead from an overdose by the time he’s 30.”
It turned to be the former. Manyonga roared back to form in 2016 and, at the Olympics in Rio, he unleashed a lifetime best of 8.37m in the penultimate round.
In the final round, USA’s Jeff Henderson jumped 8.38m to deny him victory, but, for Manyonga, the silver felt as good as gold.
“I was so emotional,” he says. “It was the most fantastic thing that ever happened to me.”
The way his nation embraced him, upon his return, spoke to how strongly his story resonated. “I never had a reaction like that from my people,” he says.
Since then, he has swept all before him: Manyonga is now the reigning world champion, Commonwealth champion, and Diamond League champion.
An athlete who fell several times, he is defined by how he kept getting up, a lesson he’s keen to pass on. “I’m hoping others who are following me can say: it doesn’t matter the situation, it doesn’t have to be a substance — sometimes it’s life itself — and other people can use my experience to change their situation. I’m a person who has experienced all things: from nobody to someone.”
Manyonga arrives in Cork in flying form, having jumped 8.37m into a stiff headwind in London last month, and, over the summer, he’s been training well in Germany, where, in his spare time, he occupies himself by searching for amusement parks or with night-time games of bowling (his top score is 157).
When asked what he hopes to jump tonight, he’s not keen to put a number on it, but Manyonga does have one guarantee for all those who make their way to the CIT Athletics Stadium: “It’s going to be fun and, I promise you, if everyone comes out, I’ll give them the best show.”
5.45pm: 3000m Open Men
6pm: InterFirm/Services Relay Women
6.05pm: InterFirm/Services Relay Men
6.15pm: Ladies Gaelic Football Relay Final
6.20pm: 3000m Walk Men
6.40pm: 100m Hurdles Women
6.50pm: 800m T54 Wheelchair Men
7pm: 100m Women ‘ B’ Race
7.10pm: 100m Men ‘B’ Race
7.23pm: 100m Women ‘A’ Race
7.30pm: 100m Men ‘A’ Race
7.38pm: 400m Hurdles Men
7.48pm: 800m Women
7.55pm: 800m Men
8pm: 3000m Women
8.17pm: 3000m Men
8.30pm: 200m Women ‘A’ Race
8.38pm: 200m Men ‘A’ Race
8.45pm: 1 Mile Men
8.55pm: 200m Women ‘B’ Race
9pm: 200m Men ‘B’ Race
6pm: Hammer Women
6pm: High Jump Women
6.30pm: Pole Vault Women
6.45pm: Shot Put Men
7pm: Long Jump Men
7.15pm: High Jump Men