By Riël Haumen
(c) 2013 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
(25-Oct) – Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, who died in a car accident near Johannesburg on Friday, was the most successful South African two-lap athlete of all time. J.P. van der Merwe, who coached him to world outdoor and indoor titles in the 800 metres, called him one of the best sportsmen ever produced in the country.
Hezekiel Sepeng, who, like Mulaudzi, won an Olympic silver medal in the 800m, said: “He was a better athlete than me – one of the best ever. We competed against each other many times, but we were great friends. I was his mentor.”
With Bevil Rudd (1920), Sepeng (1996, 1999), and Johan Botha (1999, 2001), Mulaudzi is one of only four South African men who won an 800m medal at a global championships (Olympic Games or World Championships), but his tally of six such honours makes him the only one with more than two.
Mulaudzi, 34, was born on 8 September 1980 in the village of Muduluni in South Africa’s far northern Limpopo province. He first attracted attention when, at the age of 17, he ran 1:50.33 at altitude in 1998. The following year he improved by exactly two seconds to 1:48.33 and won his first international title at the African Junior Championships when he clocked 1:49.13 in Tunis.
He made a big improvement in 2000, to 1:45.55, and won the silver medal at the African Championships; two years later he was third.
Mulaudzi represented South Africa for the first time at the World Championships in 2001, finishing sixth, but two years later he claimed the bronze medal. In that year he also dipped under 1:43 for the first time when he finished second to Wilfred Bungei in the Van Damme Meeting in Brussels; their 1:42.52 and 1:42.89 led the world in 2003. Mulaudzi won the 800m at three Golden League meetings (Oslo, Rome and Zürich) and was ranked second behind Bungei for the year by Track & Field News (TFN). During the year he also ran 1:43.25 and had another seven times under 1:45.
In 2004 he won his first world title when he beat Rashid Ramzi for the gold in 1:45.71 at the Indoor Championships in Budapest and later in the year had his biggest success until then when he won the silver medal at the Olympic Games in Athens, succumbing to the searing kick of Yuriy Borzakovskiy in the final straight, 1:44.45 to 1:44.61. Wilson Kipketer was third, Bungei fifth and Sepeng sixth. Mulaudzi had carried the South African flag at the opening ceremony of the Games.
Mulaudzi could not come close to his PB again in the years 2004-08 and in 2005 did not reach the final at the World Championships. In 2006 he was second at the World Indoors behind Bungei, but beat Borzakovskiy. The Association of Track & Field Statisticians (ATFS) ranked him first in the world. The next year he was seventh at the World Championships and in 2008 again second at the Indoor Championships (behind Abubaker Kaki). At the Olympic Games in Beijing, with Bungei taking the gold, the South African champion could not advance out of the semis.
But the next year, 2009, was a triumphant one – and it turned out to be his last big year on the international stage. With David Rudisha, Alfred Kirwa Yego and Kaki dominating the scene, Mulaudzi was quietly preparing for the World Championships and ran 1:44.97 and 1:45.69 in the run-up to Berlin. While the controversy swirled around South Africa’s other 800m runner, Caster Semenya, there were shocks aplenty in the men’s race, with Rudisha eliminated and Yego and Mulaudzi only making the final by the skin of their teeth as nonautomatic qualifiers.
But the final was a different story. Mulaudzi went to the front early and led at halfway in a slow 53.44. He was still ahead at 600m in 1:19.80. With Yego and Youssef Saad Kamel kicking furiously behind him, Mulaudzi kept his poise under the pressure – and his lead. The pedestrian time of 1:45.29 did not matter; he had won the gold medal. Yego took the silver only 0.06 sec behind, with the bronze going to Kamel in the same time.
Two weeks later, on the fast Rieti track, Mulaudzi improved his PB to 1:42.86, but still Sepeng’s national record of 1:42.69, which had been standing for ten years (and is still standing), eluded him. He finished the year in third place on the world list behind the two men who beat him that night, Rudisha (1:42.01) and Yego (1:42.67). Apart from the Rieti time, he had three performances under 1:45 and another eight under 1:46. TFN again ranked him second for 2009 (behind Rudisha), as did the ATFS, and he was South Africa’s Male Athlete of the Year (an honour also bestowed on him in 2006).
Although Mulaudzi finished 2010 with his tenth consecutive year under 1:45, he was very far from his best in 2011 and 2012 and by 2012 André Olivier had taken over as South Africa’s top 800m runner – even though Mulaudzi won the last of his nine SA titles that year. (The others came in 2001-03 and 2005-09.) He was the fastest South African in 2002, 2003, and for seven consecutive years in 2005-11. He announced his retirement in 2013.
His only SA record, 2:15.86 for 1000m, run in Stockholm in 2007, still stands. In addition to the medals mentioned, he also won the gold medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and two silvers at the African Games, in 2003 and 2007.
Progression at 800m: ‘98 – 1:50.33A; ‘99 – 1:48.33A; ‘00 – 1:45.55; ‘01 – 1:44.01; ‘02 – 1:43.81; ‘03 – 1:42.89; ‘04 – 1:44.56; ‘05 – 1:44.08; ‘06 – 1:43.09; ‘07 – 1:43.74; ‘08 – 1:43.26; ‘09 – 1:42.86; ‘10 – 1:43.29; ‘11 – 1:45.50; ‘12 – 1:45.78; ’13 – 1:47.46. Other PBs: 400m – 46.3, ’07; 600m – 1:17.25i, ’05; 1500m – 3:38.55, ’09.
More: Remember Mulaudi on our Messageboard: R.I.P 2004 800m Olympic Silver Medalist – Mbulaeni Mulaudzi.