Matthews ‘Loop-en-Val’ Motshwarateu

Matthews “Loop-en-Val” Motshwarateu had a unique running style that made it seem that he must fall over exhausted at any moment. That’s how he picked up the nickname Loop-en-Val (Run-and-Fall), an Afrikaans translation of his Sotho nickname Motshwareng o tlawa, meaning “Watch him, he will fall”.

Born in Soweto on 2 November 1958, Motshwarateu died in November 2001 at the age of 43 after being shot in a robbery. In those 43 years, however, he made an indelible mark in athletics, both in South Africa and abroad.

Exploded onto the athletics scene

One of South Africa’s greatest middle-and long-distance athletes, Motshwarateu exploded onto the South African athletics scene in 1978, barely a year after the white-controlled South African Amateur Athletics Union opened its doors to black athletes.

Competing in a meeting in Stellenbosch, he faced the highly rated and dominant Ewald Bonzet in the 5 000 metres.

Chris Barron, in an obituary published in the Sunday Times, described the event as follows: “The place was Coetzenburg, the famous athletics stadium in Stellenbosch and home in those days to the most committed athletics supporters in the country. The event was the 5 000m, until then dominated by Ewald Bonzet.

“The late Arrie Joubert, a top Afrikaans athletics writer from upcountry, had told Cape Town fans to watch out for an amazing runner called Motshwarateu whose crazy running style, he wrote, had earned him the Sotho nickname Motshwareng o tlawa, which means ‘Watch him, he will fall’. Joubert translated this into Afrikaans as ‘Loop-en-Val’.

How could he pose a threat?

“The fans who packed Coetzenburg that April night in 1978 thought Joubert must have been joking. How could someone who looked like he was going to fall flat on his face pose a threat to Bonzet, the king of white middle-distance runners?

“Added to the curiosity value was an edge of tension. The last time South Africa’s hard man of athletics had run against a black athlete, he had viciously elbowed him out of the race.

“The gun went off and Motshwarateu’s eccentric gait had the crowd wondering how long he could possibly last. After 11 laps he was not only still in the race, he was in front.

South African record

“With one-and-a-half laps to go, he began to sprint and the crowd became hysterical. He won the race, breaking Bonzet’s four-year-old South African record to set a new one of 13 minutes, 29.6 seconds. The crowd, just about all white and mostly Afrikaans, gave him a standing ovation.”

The following year, Barron writes, Motshwarateu was back at Coetzenburg. This time, he smashed Bonzet’s 10 000m record, becoming the first South African to run the distance in under 28 minutes, in one of the most sensational performances in South African athletics history – only three other South African runners have since beaten the time of 27 minutes and 48.2 seconds that Motshwarateu posted that night.

“By 1979 he had become one of SA athletics’ biggest drawcards”, Barron writes. “Very few whites knew his proper name, but they did know that if ‘Loop-en-Val’ was running in a race, they couldn’t miss it. The moment he stepped onto a track there was electricity in the air and a feeling that anything might happen. He had enormous charisma that communicated itself to the crowds. They loved him, and he seldom let them down.”

University of Texas-El Paso

In next to no time, Motshwarateu became one of South Africa’s best known athletes, but he left the country after winning a scholarship to the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP), and it wasn’t until seven years later that he returned to South Africa.

Motshwarateu was hugely successful at UTEP, where he won All-American colours on four occasions in the cross-country, 10 000 metres and three-mile indoor run.

He led UTEP in its domination of US university cross-country, and indoor and outdoor track and field, and in 1981 won the highly competitive NCAA cross-country title as UTEP produced the greatest win in the history of NCAA cross-country championships, completely dominating the event.

World record

In 1980, while still a student, Motshwarateu broke the world record for the 10 kilometres road race, slicing 24 seconds off the previous mark – making him the first black South African athlete to break a world record.

Many, however, believe that Loop-en-Val’s greatest run took place in 1988, when, at the age of 30, he took on the Mexican star Arturo Barrios, regarded as virtually unbeatable over 10 kilometres. Racing in New Orleans, Motshwarateu did what he did best, attacking early on and building up a big lead only three kilometres into the race.

Five kilometres later, Barrios had caught up. The wily South African made as if he was fatigued and Barrios passed him easily. On the last kilometre, Motshwarateu struck back, surging past the Mexican ace to take a memorable win in a blistering 27 minutes and 54 seconds, which remains the South African record to this day.

Returned to SA

Motshwarateu enjoyed his time in the United States, but had to return to South Africa, and on his return to his country remained a handful for the top South African athletes, right up until the 1995 season, when he was 37 years old.

He spoke of joining the lucrative veterans’ circuit in the United States when he turned 40, but a hamstring injury prevented him from doing that.

Sadly, Motshwarateu missed out on the professional era and, despite six years spent at UTEP, left with few qualifications to help him later on in life.

The governing body of athletics in South Africa, Athletics South Africa, came in for some criticism when, with Motshwarateu struggling to make a living, they chose not to take advantage of his charisma and use him to promote the sport.

Motshwarateu eventually found work as a second-hand car dealer but, when he was killed in 2001, died with little reward to show for his fine career; he wasn’t even able to pay for his own funeral. He was survived by his wife, Lilian, and four children.

In 2002, Loop-en-Val was honoured by the organisers of the popular Soweto Marathon, who decided that the race would be run in honour of one of the greatest sportsmen the township – and the country – has ever produced.

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