MASERU — Mabuthile Lebopo is arguably among the finest athletes ever produced in Lesotho.
Over the past 10 years, the diminutive Lebopo, who stands at a mere 1.5 metres, has won numerous athletics awards.
Just two months ago Lebopo won the prestigious Two Oceans marathon in Cape Town that saw the best of southern African athletes compete for honours.
He is respected and feared in equal measure in athletics circles for his sporting prowess.
With all that he has achieved, one would have expected Lebopo to be feted on his return home as a national hero.
But the man quietly slipped into the country in a damning illustration of the shoddy manner Lesotho treats its athletes.
Talk of a prophet not being honoured in his own town.
Despite bringing home numerous awards, Lebopo remains largely unappreciated in his own country.
Winning the Two Oceans marathon was no easy task.
Recent Comrades marathon winner, Stephen Muzhingi, was among the cream of athletes who took part in the race.
“It wasn’t a heavy race as such. I was able to run without too much difficulty and according to plan,” Lebopo reminisces in an interview at his Ha Abia home.
He picks his words carefully and is composed – qualities no doubt useful in executing his winning dash to perfection last April.
Lebopo’s winning time of 3:06:18 hours was one of the fastest times ever recorded by a winning athlete in recent years.
Interestingly, the race was heavily dominated by Basotho athletes.
Moeketsi Mosuhli came second, Teboho Sello came third while Lebopo’s younger brother, Warinyane, came fifth.
For his efforts, Lebopo walked away with a cool M150 000.
“Sometimes people think about the money and it goes to their heads,” he says
“You have to run according to how you trained.
“Even though I was behind at one point I knew I had to be calm and keep to my plan.”
In many ways keeping calm and staying focused against all odds has been the story of his life.
Born on December 25 1975, Lebopo says he grew up in extremely underprivileged circumstances.
His parents were poor and he had to learn to share whatever little resources they had with four brothers and a sister.
But his rags-to-riches story has been punctuated by bitter disappointments on the way.
For instance, he lost his first two children in tragic circumstances.
Those life lessons, he says, have kept him humble and determined.
He says he realises how lucky he is to be where he is.
Lebopo now stays in a modest but beautiful house in Ha Abia that has two garages, a clear sign of how far he has come.
Lebopo, who runs from Mafeteng to Maseru in his spare time, a distance of 80km, would have been a mine worker in South Africa were it not for fate.
In 2002, like most unemployed Basotho, Lebopo left for Gauteng in search of a job in the mines.
He was taken in by Aaron Mohloli, a Mosotho living in South Africa.
“He had said he had some work for me at the mines. But when he saw the talent I had (in athletics) he told me to focus on that,” Lebopo says.
“He played a big role for all of us. (Teboho) Sello, Warinyane, Lebenya Nkoka, Tsotang Maine, and (‘Mamoroallo) Tjoka, all passed through his hands.”
Lebopo spent three years in Gauteng before returning home in 2005.
He says he took his first professional race in the 2002 Soweto Marathon.
He says his journey to athletics stardom began in 1984 when he was a young boy at Sekhaupane Primary and later at St Thomas High School.
“I saw people who had succeeded through athletics and my challenge was to emulate them. I saw that sport can change one’s life,” Lebopo says.
Lebopo’s brilliant career has not been without blemish, however.
Last year, Lebopo and fellow athletes Mosuhli, Nkhabutlane, Nkoka and Tjoka were locked in a bitter row with the Lesotho Amateur Athletics Association (LAAA).
The athletes all failed to finish their races at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
On their return home, the LAAA branded the five athletes “unpatriotic opportunists” who had humiliated their own country.
The five were subsequently banned from taking part in athletics competitions.
The dispute took a turn for the worse when the LAAA ordered that Lebopo and Nkhabutlane should be hauled off the starting line before a Nedbank Series race in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
It is an episode that has hurt Lebopo so much to the extent that he says he has no desire to take part in the Olympic Games again.
“The Olympics is out, I don’t want to go,” Lebopo insists. “They (Lesotho athletics authorities) left me there so I don’t know what their plan was with me when they did that.”
He says what happened then clearly illustrate what is wrong with Lesotho sport.
He is currently affiliated to Mr Price athletics club in South Africa.
“Lesotho has talent, it just needs to support and nurture that talent.
“Right now I take myself as not part of Lesotho, not because I don’t like my country but because what I was able to achieve was because of our neighbours (South Africa),” Lebopo says.
“Our (local) companies have not shown any interest in us. I can only name Nedbank Lesotho which has tried to help,” Lebopo says.
He says this year is targeting the City to City marathon in September as well as the Soweto marathon in November.
He also says his main ambition is to one day take part in international races such as the New York and London marathons.
“I am very satisfied because I’m living, but I’m also not satisfied because there is so much more that can be done for our athletes,” Lebopo says.