Classic finals: The Olympic champion who was shot five months earlier

4 Aug 1996:  (L to R) Bong-Ju Lee of South Korea and Josia Thugwane of South Africa in action during the men's marathon at the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Thugwane won gold with Lee taking silver. \ Mandatory Credit: Gary M Prior/Allsport
4 Aug 1996: (L to R) Bong-Ju Lee of South Korea and Josia Thugwane of South Africa in action during the men's marathon at the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Thugwane won gold with Lee taking silver. \ Mandatory Credit: Gary M Prior/Allsport

The history of the Olympic Games is full of dramatic, emotional and beautiful moments that took place in finals. Every week, relive the most incredible finals you can remember on video. This week, we have the Atlanta 1996 men's marathon, with the tightest finish in Olympic history.

The deets

  • Atlanta, Georgia
  • Centennial Olympic Stadium, 04 August 1996, 7:05 am

The background

The list of starters for the 1996 Olympic men's marathon was very competitive. No favourite could claim to be in the best position to achieve Olympic glory, but there were many contenders stood together in Centennial Olympic Stadium, the venue where the athletes would start the race and return 42.195km later to complete the final event of the Games.

Spain's 1995 world champion Martín Fiz was hoping to keep the momentum he had built going into the Games, in order to achieve his Olympic dream. The Korean runner Lee Bong-ju, winner of the year before's Donga International Marathon in Seoul, was also on this list.

Three South African runners were standing at the starting line, including Josia Thugwane, an athlete who had won the first marathon of his career in Hawaii in 1995. He had also dealt with a dramatic carjacking that left him with a bullet above his chin and a back injury just five months before the Games.

Key moment

The first half of the race was relatively slow paced with a lead group of 25 runners who passed the 21.1km flag in a time of 1:07:36. It was not before kilometre 25 that the first move was made, with the three South African runners deciding to move to the front of the race. It was a very symbolic moment, as the country had only abolished apartheid five years earlier and had won the Rugby World Cup in 1995 with the slogan, "one team, one country."

At first, the three South African athletes were followed by only one runner, Lee Bong-ju, with his headband emblazoned with the Republic of Korea flag, but they were quickly caught by a group of 20. Thugwane attacked multiple times, again joined by the valiant South Korean first, then by the whole group.

But the decisive attack occurred when Thugwane, again, took the lead at kilometre 35. Only Lee Bong-ju and the Kenyan Erick Wainaina could keep up with him. The trio ran the rest of the race together and were not separated until the very end when the Olympic Stadium was almost in sight.

Josia Thugwane finally proved that this day was his day, making a final push that neither Wainaina nor Lee could follow.

The South African runner won the race in 2:12:36, followed by the South Korean runner three seconds later and the Kenyan runner eight seconds later. It was the tightest finish in Olympic history.

The outcome

Josia Thugwane became the first black South African athlete to win Olympic Gold. "I was so happy when I heard the cheering in the Stadium but I knew they were very close behind me" said the Olympic champion after the race. The one who had almost lost his life five months earlier. The one who had "lost all hope of being at the Olympics and even to be recovered."

Four years later, he finished 20th in the Sydney 2000 marathon, alongside Lee Bong-ju, who finished 24th. The South Korean continued his Olympic journey at Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, ending his career with a 2009 victory in the Korean National Sports Festival marathon.

Men’s Marathon, Atlanta 1996
52:00