South Africa's Mbulaeni Mulaudzi celebrates winning the 800m at the 2004 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Budapest (© Getty Images)
Shy, astute, dangerous and shrewd; the leopard is among South Africa's most perilous creatures. Mbulaeni Mulaudzi may not be overly bashful, but he is gently soft-spoken, cunning on the track, and after capping his first indoor season with a world indoor title, he clearly displayed that he's as dangerous in a race as a coy leopard can be in the wild.
Precision attack in Budapest
"I think it was a really good race," Mulaudzi understated after his fierce homestretch kick propelled him past Brazil's Osmar Dos Santos on Sunday en route to Budapest gold. Like a nimble leopard stalking his prey, Mulaudzi struck at precisely the right time to become the second South African to win the world indoor 800m title. "I only took the lead in the last 100m. That is really important, to lead at the start of the final straight."
After minimal indoor experience – "I do not seem to run well indoors," he said, "there is no chance for me to get the rhythm right" – Mulaudzi didn't have high expectations heading to Budapest.
But after finishing runner-up to Wilfred Bungei in Stuttgart on his indoor debut, clocking 1:45.43, a win in Ghent and a third-place showing behind world leader Yuriy Borzakovskiy and Bungei in Stockholm in mid-February, the 23-year-old seemed to be adjusting fairly well to intimate indoor settings.
Last weekend, a comfortable run in his heat and a win in his semi-final indicated that despite his inexperience indoors, he would enter the final as a solid medal threat. His 1:45.71 win, nearly half a second clear of Bahrain's Rashid Ramzi, proved the threat was very real.
No special indoor preparation
"Looking at the way that we ran, I'm really satisfied with the time," he said. "I didn't have any special preparation for the indoor season. I haven't yet started my speed work. I've really just been building endurance. Coming to Budapest and winning gold is a good thing for me."
As the first black South African to claim gold at an IAAF World Championship, his win was a momentous one for his country as well.
"The gold medal by Mbulaeni Mulaudzi in the men's 800m is significant in a number of ways," Athletics South Africa CEO Banele Sindani said, "and it proves a number of things. It is the first gold medal by a black South African athlete at the IAAF World Championships. This says to us at ASA that we must be doing something right in terms of our development programme. Our development programme continues to bear fruit in terms of addressing the imbalances of the past, this, in all segments of our sport."
Mulaudzi displayed traits similar to southern Africa's most elusive big cats in 2003, a season he ended sitting atop the IAAF world rankings. But way before then, he dropped several hints that he was ready to attack the event's upper echelon before last season's breakout campaign.
Mulaudzi began running at age 16 at home in Vanderbijlpark, about 60 kilometres south of Johannesburg. Initially a 1500m runner – his PB is 3:39.70 from 2002 – he began concentrating on the 800m in 1999, now his favourite event, and immediately showed promise with a 1:48.33 that spring. In 2000, he improved to 1:45.55.
The following year, his progression continued at the World Championships in Edmonton, where he ran 1:44.81 in the semis, and finished sixth in the final. Ten days later, he was suddenly on the verge of sub-1:44 territory with a 1:44.01 dash in Zurich, and ended the season as the 11th fastest in the world.
In 2002, Mulaudzi became the first South African to win the Commonwealth 800m title, and again, his best came in Zurich, where he finished third in 1:43.81.
He began last season in early April with a pair of wins at home before exploding on to the scene with a 1:43.25 win in Rehlingen in early June. With wins in Oslo, Rome, Madrid and Zurich and a runner-up showing in the Paris Golden League, Mulaudzi returned to Paris as the most consistent two-lapper among the solid field of medal contenders.
Besides a fifth-place finish in Berlin, his only major lapse of the season came in the World Championships final, where he found himself well back with 150 meters to go. He powered down the homestretch to claim the bronze, finishing just nine hundredths of a second behind winner Djabir Saïd-Guerni in the closest ever 1-2-3 finish in the 800m at a World Championships.
"With 200 to go, There was nothing I could do," he said after his race in Paris. "I responded really late."
Five days later, he joined the elite sub-1:43 club after a 1:42.89 run in Brussels, where he pushed Wilfred Bungei to the fastest time of the year.
After a brief break, Mulaudzi will resume competition in Cape Town on 19 March, where he will contest the 1500m before he begins his preparation for the South African Championships on April 16-17 in Durban, aiming for his fourth straight national title. The domestic season finale also serves as the initial selection meet for the South African Olympic team.
In the meantime, he will continue to train alone with his coach Makonde Makumisane, and enjoy family life in Vanderbijlpark where he lives with his parents and three sisters, a situation quite to his liking. "It's really good," Mulaudzi, an avid film buff, said of his siblings, smiling. "They really take care of you."
Mulaudzi said he hasn't completely turned his back on serious competition in the 1500m, but for now, heading towards Athens, his competitive focus will clearly remain on the 800m. "I will see as I get older if I'll run the 1500m again."
Not yet 24, talk of "getting older" isn't yet on the agenda. First come the Olympic Games, and perhaps another milestone for his country. But after his performance in Budapest, others in the hotly contested 800m will be far more aware of this wily South African leopard who has swiftly come of age.