He dominated middle distances on the track in the late 70s and 80s and drew crowds in their thousands. His name was synonymous with the thrilling races held at the well-known Coetzenburg Stadium in Stellenbosch. Johan Fourie, the young blonde blitz with the muscular legs, was a world-class athlete on South African soil, one of the best Springbok athletes our country has ever produced.
He had crowds on their feet, clapping and cheering as he ran the popular mile race, for which he is still known today. After each victory, the blonde youngster would run a lap around the track, smiling broadly, arms stretched high in victory. His record for the mile (3:50.82) is still seen as a phenomenal time, while his record in the 3 000m stood for 23 years. Johan competed 67 times at Coetzenburg and ran 734 track races, of which he won 469. Many believe Johan would have been a big name in world athletics if South Africa was allowed to compete internationally at the time. Modern Athlete caught up with Johan and found out what this Living Legend is up to these days.
Johan and his family live in Stellenbosch, where he has worked for 11 years as a branch manager at Alexander Forbes. In 1995, he moved from Pretoria to this idyllic town after the University of Stellenbosch offered him a full time coaching position. He coached students for four years before accepting a position at Alexander Forbes in 1998. “I was ready for a career change. It was actually my wife who had to go for the interview at Alexander Forbes, but I went with and said that I was also interested in the position. Eventually, I was the one who got the job. My wife and I still laugh about it today,” says Johan, an ex-policeman with a BCom Accounting degree. When he started working at Alexander Forbes, he didn’t give up coaching, but only changed his emphasis to coaching mostly high school students.
You will find Johan on the athletics field of the Paul Roos Gymnasium in Stellenbosch four times a week between 16:30 and 18:30. “My group has grown to over 50 athletes.” On principal, Johan does not coach primary school kids as he believes young children should have the opportunity to play and enjoy sport without being pressured by a coach.
His wife, Marinda, assists with the coaching and Johan describes her as the ‘mother’ of the athletes. Marinda, an excellent 400m athlete with a best time of 52:09 in 1998, helps athletes with technical advice on their running style and with their gym programmes. Johan is responsible for motivation and visualization. His group is not called ‘The Dog Squad’ for nothing. Athletes start out as embryos and as they progress they become puppies. If you want to move up to dog status, you have to run certain times. “Only when they can run the times I ran, can they become greyhounds,” says Johan.
This athletics legend coaches some excellent junior athletes, like 17-year-old Dominique Scott, currently the SA Schools u/17 champion in the 1 500m. Her best times include 4:28.7 (1 500m), 9:43.0 (3 000m) and 34:48 (10km). Another promising athlete, the 16-year-old Sunel Jacobs, came second at the SA Schools u/15 Championship. Her best times include 56.8 (400m) and 2:13.77 (800m). Both girls are working towards one day competing at the Olympic Games. The squad’s best senior athlete is Jacques Pretorius, who has a best time of 3:47.3 (1 500m). “I see my passion for running in them. I lived for athletics and I can see it’s just as important to them as it was to me,” says Johan.
He inspires his athletes in the following way. As your coach:
- I will not motivate you, but I will try to inspire you.
- I will not push you, but I will show you the way.
- I will only take you to the level where you want to be.
- I will not set goals for you, but I will tell you what I think is realistic, and remember, you can always prove me wrong.
- I promise that you will not get more out than what you are willing to put in.
- I do not expect life to treat me fairly and believe that the world owes me nothing.
- I believe anything is possible as long as I believe in it.
- I believe I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Johan remembers the night he broke the mile record. “It was 11 March 1987. It was in Port Elizabeth and I worked the whole year towards it. I always said I wanted to run 3:49. It was a perfect evening and we ran in front of a packed stadium. I did my best and could not run any faster. After every big race, I used to throw up and that showed me I gave it my all.” Johan has broken 17 SA senior records and four SA junior records in his career as a middle distance track athlete.
He has no regrets and would not change anything if he had the chance, even though he wasn’t allowed to compete internationally for years. In 1988, Johan applied for Swazi citizenship to escape Apartheid restrictions on running and had to live in Swaziland for a year, but things didn’t work out and Johan soon found himself back home. Shortly afterwards, he left for America where he tried to apply for political asylum, to no avail.
Towards the end of 1988, back in South Africa, a virus attacked Johan’s heart and lungs. He was sick for a long time and his training came to a halt. “My doctor said I would never be able to run again, but I refused to accept it.”
The first time he tried to run, he only managed 500m before throwing up. “That was a difficult time because in 1987, I was still running times of 3:33 in the 1 500m. I never expected to get so sick. I persevered and ran for five years after that, but I was never as good.”
In 1992, South Africa was re-admitted to international athletics. Johan’s times were still good enough for him to compete in the Golden League meets. “I was already 32-years-old. It was 18 April 1992 when, for the first time, I competed internationally in Dakar. It was called the Unity Games and it was amazing competing somewhere else, especially because I knew every piece of tartan on the Coetzenburg and Pilditch Stadiums. In Dakar, I was in a strange stadium packed with about 50 000 people. I only got tenth place in the 1 500m (3:46), but time and position did not matter. I was there, competing internationally.” Johan went on to run in Czechoslovakia and finished sixth in the 3 000m (7:51).
While competing at some of the Golden League meets, Johan remembers feeling a little bit bitter. “At one stage, I was unhappy. I felt at long last I was competing internationally, but after being sick, my running was never the same. I was frustrated, because I was beaten by athletes who I would have beaten three years earlier. I realized my career was coming to an end.” He remembers how lonely he felt at some international meets. “I was overwhelmed by everything. No one rooted for me; it wasn’t like Coetzenburg where I was a hero. The other athletes in the hotel didn’t speak to me. They were used to everything and to me it all was new.”
He never really enjoyed international competitions. “It never gave me the same joy and satisfaction as competing locally. Looking back today, I am actually glad I never got citizenship from another country. Things might have been very different.” He does admit he would have loved to test himself against guys like Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. “They were legends in my time and I would have given anything to run against them. I once met Sebastian, but never competed against him. He was in a league of his own, but I do believe that I could have been one of the top five middle distance athletes in the world.”
RETIREMENT FROM ATHLETICS
Johan never formally announced his retirement. “I kept on training, but the more athletes I started coaching, the less I trained. One day I realized, I’m not training at all. I think it was a good way to retire. There was no emotion involved. I often joke and say my retirement was like someone silently passing away
in his sleep.” Johan has found his passion in coaching and today he can’t imagine not being involved in some sort of training. “I can see a burning passion in some of my athletes. They make coaching easy. If they make the Olympic Team one day, it might complete the picture for me.”
“The first time I ran a dream mile was definitely a highlight. It was in 1979 when I was 19-years-old. Sydney Maree came all the way from America to compete. He won the race and I came second in a time of 3:56. Just before that race, I had received my Springbok colours and it was the first time I was competing in them. It was just an amazing week and event.”
EARLIEST RUNNING MEMORIES
“My mom says I never sat still. I only really started running in high school. A teacher saw me running and said I should start training properly. In 1977, in Grade 11, I won my first 800m event. It was a nice feeling and I kept on running.”
Three names stand out, Henning Gericke, Deon Brummer and Matthews Temane. “Henning was brilliant and I feared him. At the age of 16, he had already shattered the 1 500m record, then he went to America. When he came back, the wheel turned.” Johan and Deon competed against each other for the first time in 1977 and for the last time at a 10km race in 2006, 29 years later. They were always known for their battles on the track and are still good friends today. Another great competitor was Matthews. “He had an unbelievable kick towards the end of a race and he has beaten me many times.”
Johan admits he doesn’t do much exercise these days, mainly because coaching keeps him too busy. But after a recent doctor’s visit, he is now forced to start exercising again. “I had heart palpitations running on the treadmill. My cholesterol was very high and the doctor warned me not to think I am still as fit as back in the heydays. I’m also 20kg heavier and weigh 95kg. My prime weight was between 72kg and 78kg.” Johan is trying to lose some weight and now tries to control his sweet tooth as well as his love for beer. “I also started running a bit. It’s actually more walking than running. I don’t even think I can do a 10km in under an hour!”
Johan and Marinda met at an athletics meeting in 1988 and have two children, Rico (19) and Sh?n (10). “Rico’s name is actually Juan Rico. When I was still competitive, I also tried to apply for citizenship from Paraguay. I was in the embassy when I decided to change my name if I did become a citizen. I grabbed the phonebook and decided on the name Juan Rico. Things didn’t work out for me, but when our son was born, we decided to name him Juan Rico.” He studies tourism and also loves singing and acting. “We decided to never force our kids into athletics. Sh?n has done well in 50m, 80m and even 1 200m, but we don’t pressure her. One thing is for sure, she’s a lot like me when I was a child. She just can’t sit still.”
ATHLETES TO KEEP AN EYE ON
Johan held the 3 000m record (7:44.00) for 23 years. Then came the young Juan van Deventer who shattered it in Stockholm last year by running a blistering 7:41.06. “I never thought my record would stand for so long. I am happy for Juan. It could not have happened to a better person. I see a lot of myself in him. Just like me, he doesn’t have a lot of speed, but he works very hard to achieve his times. We have not seen the end of him. Johan Cronje is another brilliant athlete. He has the speed and will go far if he has the right work ethic. Middle distances are all about your ability to handle pain.”
Johan’s life motto is based on his Dog Squad’s motto, “Here at the Dog Squad, we hate the saying ‘winning is everything.’ We will not tolerate people who think and act like that. Running is just a game. When you lose, get injured or run a really bad time, no one needs to die, rivers don’t change their course and the sun still rises and sets. It’s a roller coaster game of many ups and downs. But it’s just a game.“
Running your PB always beats winning. Winning is a gift. When you give it your best, and that happens to be better than your opponent’s best effort, you will receive the gift of winning. It’s not a shame to lose when you have given your best. To win and not give your best is a shame. Winning can only be meaningful when you have competed against the best and they have performed at their best level as well. When we give it our all, we can live with ourselves, regardless of the results. To qualify for The Dog Squad, you do not need any talent, but you do need to love running or even better, be absolutely passionate about running. You don’t even need to compete as long as you enjoy the training. You must bring lots of joy and energy to the group and not tap energy from it. When you are down, we will pick you up. You must have integrity and a pure heart.”
1 000m 2:17.0 (1985)
1 500m 3:33.87 (1987)
Mile 3:50.82 (1987) SA record
2 000m 4:56.0 (1985) SA record
3 000m 7:44.00 (1985)
10km 28:41 (1985)