Luvo Manyonga and the Irish strongman who helped him from addiction to Rio glory

John McGrath had key role in long jumper’s journey from crystal meth to Olympic silver

 Luvo Manyonga won silver medal in the long jump at the Rio Olympics, just three years after giving up crystal meth. Photograph: Getty/Matthias Hangst

Luvo Manyonga won silver medal in the long jump at the Rio Olympics, just three years after giving up crystal meth. Photograph: Getty/Matthias Hangst


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 [a leap of 8.95m by Mike Powell]. So I think it is a calling for me.”

Can Manyonga become the first man to jump beyond nine metres – a mark as resonant in his event as dipping under 10 seconds was once in the 100m or when running a mile in under four minutes was a dreamily impossible landmark? “It is possible. Definitely. It can happen. I’m super hungry with the ambition of taking over the world.”

His ear studs flash and the tattoo spelling out LUVO on his arm flexes – almost in amusement at his bravado. But, as always with Manyonga, his past makes such boldness as moving as it is striking: “In life I have overcome so many obstacles. So to get a silver medal in the Olympics is a privilege. But this was my first Olympics – and still more is coming. I am the type of person where I don’t get overawed. I dreamed about the Olympics since I started. So it didn’t seem super-huge to me. Other people might feel different because they didn’t experience what I did.”

Manyonga leans back when I ask him to describe his mood before the final. “I was chilled out. I shared a room with Khotso Mokoena [who won silver in the long jump at the 2008 Beijing Olympics] and I told him: ‘Dude, I can’t wait for tomorrow.’ I’d been waiting for this moment so long. I was annoyed I even had to go to sleep first. But I slept beautifully. I even slept earlier so I could get the night over. When I woke up in the morning it was like …”

He searches for the right word. “Christmas?” I suggest.

“Two hundred percent,” Manyonga beams. “I just wanted the time to come right now. I wanted to show the world Luvo Manyonga is back.”

Manyonga jumped a personal best of 8.37m, a mark he has since smashed, and he was comfortably ahead of the 2012 Olympic champion, Britain’s Greg Rutherford, whose leap of 8.29m would win him bronze. It was only on Jeff Henderson’s sixth and final jump that the American snatched the Olympic gold medal away from Manyonga with 8.38m. Those 10mm are just grainy specks of dust compared to the vast distance Manyonga has travelled out of the darkness and into the light of a new life.

Modern sport is a tangled business. Today it is as much about money and image as glory and substance. But it seems appropriate that the world’s best athletes should be well-rewarded when millions of people watch them. I also feel gratified when sport offers a way out of impoverishment and despair for athletes as talented as Luvo Manyonga.

And so I have some familiar and pragmatic discussions with Lee-Roy Newton, a former athlete and Manyonga’s new agent, about this interview. Newton and Manyonga began working together six weeks after the Olympics and the agent explains it is important we “change the narrative”. I think the narrative has already been changed by Manyonga. Rather than remaining a victim of addiction he has become one of world sport’s most uplifting figures. But Newton points out that potential sponsors do not want to be associated with past negative stories.

I respect Newton’s professionalism and desire to create fresh opportunities for Manyonga – but it would be pointless to write about the athlete in a vacuum. There are countless other Olympic medallists but interest in Manyonga stems from his admirable ability to overcome his mistakes and years of adversity. His drug problem is public knowledge – and he was banned for 18 months in 2012 for using crystal meth, the opposite of performance-enhancing doping. But Manyonga is now hurtling towards a different future where world records and Olympic gold medals may await.

I explain to Newton that I will travel first to Mbekweni to meet John McGrath and Manyonga’s family. Newton advises me not to emphasise the role of any individual who might have helped Manyonga – with the implication that a meeting with McGrath is not welcome.

The world’s strongest man

“Hey, it’s the world’s strongest man!” a voice cries out at Cape Town airport soon after John McGrath meets me for the first time. McGrath is engulfed by two friends who, it turns out, are actors. They worked with McGrath when he was part of a vaudeville show where he played the hammed-up role of the World’s Strongest Man.

“It was great fun,” McGrath says after reminiscing with the men before they catch a flight. “I did my usual thing. Bending iron bars and breaking out of steel chains.”

McGrath chuckles and, as we settle into his car for the long drive to Paarl and Mbekweni, the 49-year-old tells me he will soon attempt to enter the Guinness Book of World Records.

“It’s pretty easy,” McGrath says. “I just need to bend 10 six-inch steel nails in less than 21 seconds. I love the rawness of it.”

McGrath has performed around the world as a strongman, rowed internationally for Ireland and also fought as a kick-boxer for his country while earning five black belts in various forms of martial arts after studying hapkido with DoJuNim Ji, Bruce Lee’s teacher. As a party trick, he can tear up a pack of cards as if they are a flimsy sheet of paper. Yet his work with Manyonga carries the most magic for McGrath.

The drive from Cape Town to the pretty Afrikaans town of Paarl echoes with Irish affection for an extraordinary Xhosa long jumper. Manyonga & McGrath might sound like a new South African law firm but when they met in 2013 they were a tik user (tik being the township name for crystal meth) and an ex-refuse collector from Waterford in Ireland.

“I grew up in rural Ireland in the 1970s,” McGrath says over a coffee in his favourite cafe in Paarl. It’s the same coffee shop where McGrath and Manyonga hung out when the strongman was straightening out the jumper. “Ireland was not so compassionate then. It was dominated by the Catholic church and my education was narrow. But I always had hope that someday I could do something. It was a faint hope because I was bullied a lot. I got burned with cigarettes on my chest. That scars you even if you don’t realise it at the time. But I reached the tipping point of saying: ‘No more.’ I got into martial arts then. I started karate and read books. I was reaching out to the world and enjoyed the eastern philosophies and the path of the warrior.”

His physical strength was spotted by a rowing coach – as McGrath went to the local club where they offered free swimming lessons. “Irish people can’t really swim,” he smiles, “so I took my chance. After a few sessions this guy said: ‘Why don’t you try rowing?’ That appealed to me because you have to be very strong for rowing. I would cycle to rowing, train, cycle back and do rudimentary weight-training with rocks.”

McGrath became an accomplished rower and, when he was picked for Ireland, he was in a boat with men studying to be doctors or lawyers. “I was sweeping streets in Waterford,” McGrath remembers, “and I did that for three years. But I was dreaming of a way out. Rowing was my ticket to freedom – otherwise I was destined to sweep those streets until this day. I had tenacity and was picked for Ireland at the age of 23. I was Irish Rower of the Year in 1999 … but then my back struck.”

McGrath suffered a bulging disc and he was told his sporting career was over. He ignored his doctors and made his mark in martial arts and kickboxing. Such grit helps explain his empathy for Manyonga. McGrath had fallen for a South African girl and he flew to Cape Town with her on holiday in 2008. He has remained in the Cape ever since. McGrath is now a well-known figure in Paarl where he runs a gym.

“In 2013 I was in Colombia as [South Africa’s] tug-of-war coach at the World Games,” McGrath explains. “It was then that the Sascoc [South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee] people and me first talked about Luvo.”

Manyonga had won the 2010 World Junior Championships and, a year later, he performed even more impressively. He finished fifth in the world championships in Daegu and, as McGrath says, “Luvo won a lot of money. But when he got back home he lost it and was back on crystal meth – or tik as it’s called on the street. The Sascoc people told me: ‘This kid is banned for 18 months and you’re not a qualified coach so you cannot work with him.’”

McGrath laughs. “Telling that to an Irishman is the biggest ‘Fuck you!’ of all time. I thought: ‘I’ll fucking show you!’ But it took me a month to track down Luvo. I think word had reached him: ‘A two-metre tall, 120kg white guy is looking for you.’ I didn’t sound too appealing. But I got in touch with pastor Eugene Maqwelan in Mbekweni and he found Luvo. We met at his church office. Luvo looked dapper. He looked awesome. He was a tik addict but something shone out of him. I said: ‘If you want to take a new journey, I will walk it with you.’ I was convinced I could make him better. Luvo’s redemption would partly be my own.”

Second Captains

McGrath might have learnt a lot about strength and conditioning but he knew little about long jumping. “I had to reconnect him with Mario Smith – who had been his coach. Mario was a very good man and had great passion. But they had been through the wars and it took time. While we were trying to get them back together I worked with him in the gym and wherever I went, Luvo went. It was a slow process – with lots of relapses.”

Manyonga kept sliding back into the dark clutches of addiction and McGrath, three years later, sighs. “You had to have the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job to work with Luvo then. You never knew from one day to the next where he would be. But you had to make peace with that and believe things would get better.”

They got worse. Even when Manyonga somehow qualified for the 2014 Commonwealth Games his paperwork was mysteriously “lost”, allegedly in a mistake made by an administrator, for Manyonga was still an embarrassment. Soon afterwards, in June 2014, Smith died in a car accident while driving to meet Manyonga.

Manyonga was devastated but still missed the funeral after being waylaid by his tik buddies. Luke Alfred, writing for the Mail & Guardian, captured the desolation of that day as he and McGrath went looking for Luvo in Mbekweni. Alfred’s poignant article was called “The impossibility of loving Luvo”.

“The loss of Mario was a terrible blow,” McGrath remembers. “Luvo went into a downward spiral. He was staring death in the face. It would be an exaggeration to say then that the amount of people who believed in Luvo could be counted on one hand.”

When Alfred’s feature was published in August 2014 he quoted a trenchant McGrath: “There are only two ways Luvo 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 was one of the rare occasions when a journalistic feature had widespread impact. Manyonga and McGrath were summoned to parliament where they met the sports council for two hours. McGrath pleaded for help by stressing Manyonga needed a proper coach as well as refuge from the tik-riddled streets of Mbekweni.

“To be fair to him Gideon Sam [the president of Sascoc] came through for Luvo,” McGrath says. “But the ANC [the government party] instructed Sascoc to help Luvo and it took time for that to kick in. We couldn’t get a sponsor. Not even Adidas wanted to sponsor Luvo with some spikes. I got him a pair myself but I didn’t realise there was a difference between sprinting and jumping spikes. I got Luvo sprinting spikes. They stick to the board as you take off but Luvo still jumped 8.10m.”

Finally, in 2015, Manyonga left Mbekweni for Pretoria – where he benefits from the specialist coaching of Toby Sutcliffe and Neil Cornelius at the High Performance Centre. McGrath stresses that much credit should be paid to these men for unleashing Manyonga’s brilliance.

We are joined by the photographer Pieter Bauermeister and head for Mbekweni in McGrath’s car – an Irishman driving an Afrikaner and an English-speaking South African deep into the township. “What can go wrong?” McGrath quips before Bauermeister regales with us tales of a past tik-related assignment where he had a gun held to his head by a gang leader. It’s sobering to hear him relate reports that, in the Cape Town township of Ocean View, 80% of schoolchildren may be addicted to tik. The photographer explains that national statistics suggest there are as many as 250,000 crystal meth users in the Cape – with 36% being minors. Luvo Manyonga’s Olympic achievement becomes even more tangible.

McGrath drives us through the dusty warren of ramshackle huts and houses until we reach the home of Luvo’s parents – Joyce and John Manyonga. Luvo’s dad, his sister, Vuyiseka, and her baby daughter are at home but Joyce is working. Her white madam, an Afrikaans woman whose home is cleaned by Joyce in the neighbouring town of Worcester, is unaware her domestic servant is due to be interviewed.

The Irishman rolls his eyes. “OK,” he says, “let’s go to Worcester.”

Vuyiseka and her baby join us on the drive to Worcester. I feel like I am back in apartheid-era South Africa as McGrath disappears inside to strike a deal with the white woman so Joyce can be released from her chores.

Joyce Manyonga finally climbs into the car us and we drive back to Mbekweni. “Thank you, Mama,” McGrath says.

“It’s such hard work,” Joyce replies in Afrikaans. “I get very tired. I have been a domestic worker since 1977. It’s a long time.”

Vuyiseka explains that her father lost his job seven years ago and that she and her dad have not been able to find work – as hard as they try. “Mama is the only breadwinner.”

But there is more joy than misery in the tiny Manyonga home – even when Joyce sheds copious tears. After they describe watching Luvo’s stunning Olympic feat in the early hours of a Sunday morning, Joyce rocks with pride. Her face then creases and tears roll down her cheeks as she turns to McGrath.

“John is like Luvo’s father,” Joyce says. “He looked after Luvo when nobody but his family wanted him. When Luvo was on drugs, John took care of him.”

McGrath looks down. He had suggested he would leave me alone with Joyce but I had asked him to stay. I feel compelled to speak: “I’m sorry, Joyce. I didn’t want to upset you.”

Joyce shakes her head. She explains that these are happy tears. “This man,” Joyce says, pointing at McGrath, “is very nice. John is such a good man to all my children.”

I ask Vuyiseka how they felt when Mario Smith died. “Luvo was on drugs and we were scared. But one day Luvo came to this house with John. He said: ‘This is my new coach.’ We looked at John and we liked him. John would fetch Luvo for training and he would give us money for food and electricity. My mother suffers with high-blood pressure and she worried about Luvo. But John helped so much. I could write 10 pages about how good John is to us. Years ago there was just John. Now so many people want to be with Luvo.”

There is no bitterness in Vuyiseka when she says Luvo would prefer them to visit him in Pretoria. Too many dark memories haunt him in Mbekweni. Last month he paid for his parents to fly north. It was the first time Joyce and John Manyonga had stepped aboard a plane. Joyce shudders and then exclaims with pleasure when she remembers the reaction in Pretoria.

“They kept saying to me – white and black people – ‘Luvo’s mother! We love you! We love Luvo!’”

Salty tears of pride fall from her eyes as Joyce embraces John McGrath – the Irish strongman who believed in her son.

‘This is the reason I am still alive’

“My mother always cries,” Luvo says affectionately when I tell him about my day in Mbekweni.

“So does mine,” I joke, before we agree that tears are not a sign of weakness. I tell him how much his mother impressed me. He nods and opens up. “I’m a simple person and I don’t mind about situations. If I don’t have it, I don’t have it. Growing up in Mbekweni, I would go to school and get R2 [the equivalent of 20p] for lunch. My mom is a domestic worker and she made sure we had food on the table – no matter what. The person I am today is because of my mom and my dad. This mentality I have now is because of what happened and what they taught me. Even going to sleep without food on the table made me stronger.”

Did that happen often? “It did. My mom would go to a neighbour and ask for food. I thought I would never do that. It was only one day. You won’t die from not eating something. But my mother wanted to feed us.”

Manyonga nods at Vuyiseka’s claim that he is happier seeing the family in Pretoria than at home in Mbekweni. “I think I need some more time to grow and heal,” he says quietly. “I will be a recovering addict the rest of my life and, as a [FORMER]user, there are so many triggers there. Maybe the corner where I used to hang out, seeing old friends, maybe that’s going to trigger that. But it’s nice and safe here – the only thing you think about is training and competing. It’s the best way for me.”

I loved my day in Mbekweni but it was impossible to ignore the old gulf between black and white South Africa. Are lack of opportunities the cause of widespread substance abuse in the townships? “There are drugs in the township but if you want to make it you can do it without drugs. But some people can’t make it out of there because they don’t have help – or the hope there is something more in life. That’s where I learnt about life. It was a wake-up call for me.”

Manyonga told Alfred he had to “jump or die”. Does he still believe that, if it hadn’t been for long jumping, he might be dead? “Yes. This is the reason I’m still alive. God gave me the talent to show what can be done in this world. It doesn’t matter what situation you are in … you can come back. I can spread the word to the world. But you won’t change the person until he changes himself.”

Manyonga thinks carefully when asked to remember the most difficult time of his substance abuse. “When I was starting to run away from Mario Smith’s home. I was scared when I was high. I was thinking I won’t go back. I was being paranoid thinking this is the best way to be.”

Was he lonely? “I really felt alone around three o’clock in the morning. That’s the hard time. You look around and there’s people who might know I used to be a superstar. But what if they kidnap or kill me?”

Did Manyonga ever give up the dream of jumping? “I always told the guys that I was using with that I’m going to jump again. I was the kind of guy that would jump over people or the fence or even cars.”

Even when he was high and not training? “Yes. I always had hope.”

That hope was dented by Smith’s death. “He was almost like a father. He taught me much about athletics and helped me become the person I am. He played the biggest role in my life.”

What about John McGrath? Manyonga’s body language changes and he looks awkward. “Ja, in a training point of view he did help. He did the best he can. I will give him credit also.”

It’s a clear sign Manyonga does not want to talk about McGrath. But I tell Manyonga how his mother and sister had reacted to McGrath.

“He did help me and he played a role in my life. I wouldn’t put him out of it. But so many people believed in me. They weren’t getting anything out of it if I am seeing it correctly. Maybe they want something out of it. I don’t know. But saying no one [ELSE]believed in me is not true. Gideon Sam, before I met John, flew to Cape Town to see me personally. He told me: ‘My boy, I believe in you ever since, I’m sorry for saying this, [YOUR]fucked-up days. I’m going to try to change your life one day.’ He flew back to Johannesburg and then John came out and we tried to get some interviews and spread the word that I need help.”

Did his parliamentary meeting with McGrath help? “Those people from parliament didn’t come back. ANC people came to my place. But it was empty promises. Only Sascoc came back. Now I am saying Sascoc did the most.”

I wonder how Manyonga felt when, apparently, someone from Sascoc lost his 2014 Commonwealth Games entry? “I got over it because they are still helping me a lot. I won’t say anything nasty about them. A mistake can happen to anyone. Sascoc took me from nowhere and now I am someone.”

Manyonga is truly “someone”. He is not only an Olympic silver medallist and an inspiration. He is strong and free – and with an exhilarating future ahead of him. It does not really matter who helped him most. His decision to change was driven by his inner strength.

Manyonga won an Olympic medal with less than a year of proper training. His real potential was captured three weeks after Rio when he won a Diamond League meeting in Brussels and jumped another personal best of 8.48m. His face lights up. “At the Diamond League a miracle happened. I believe in God, so much, and the miracle happened when I was praying and saw a light there. I felt so light. I didn’t even feel that 8.48. When I landed I was thinking 8.20. The moment they showed it on the board I was like: ‘Oh My God!’ I was coming from the Olympics with a silver medal but I didn’t have to prove I deserved it. I just show the world I’ve still got it. Just give me the same beat and I’ll show you.”

We talk for another 10 minutes about his hopes for the future, his new girlfriend and inspiring South Africans. It feels right to tell Manyonga how impressive he has been this year – whether in Rio, Brussels or, today, in Pretoria. But I am still confused. I know he and McGrath were together less than a month ago. They looked happy and even shared a stage to relate their joint story. But now, despite the outpouring of love his mother and sister showed for McGrath, a mere mention of the Irishman’s name brings down a wall. Why?

Manyonga pauses. “Can I not comment on that?”

“Of course,” I say.

We talk some more before Manyonga thanks me for coming to see him. He smiles when I say I expect him to win the world championships in London next year.

“I’ll be ready,” Manyonga says as we shake hands.

A few days later I meet Luke Alfred. He has written three long features about Manyonga and McGrath – and interviewed both men in detail over the last two years. “I really like Luvo,” Alfred says. “And I really like John. They’re both great.”

Alfred laughs and shakes his head when I ask him about the changed timeline which suggests that Gideon Sam, and the administrators, did most to help Manyonga find redemption. My gut-instinct about McGrath chimes with his own.

I call McGrath and explain what happened with Manyonga. He sounds hurt – but not surprised. We had already discussed, even with Joyce and Vuyiseka, the likelihood that the Irish strongman might be airbrushed out of this story.

“It’s OK,” McGrath says. “I love Luvo. I just want the best for him.”

In the end the people who matter most are Luvo and Joyce Manyonga. The Olympic silver medallist and the domestic worker, a son and his mother, have both done wonders.

“Exactly,” McGrath says. “Luvo and Joyce have done it. They have found hope. Nothing can change that. It’s still a wonderful story.”

(Guardian service)

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