A review of three stories of young people who managed to transform themselves
McFarland, USA, directed by Niki Caro
Starring Kevin Costner in the title role of Jim White
Rome 1960 by David Maraniss 2008
The man South Africa Forgot - Josia Thugwane, an article by Mike Wise & Michael Mandt for ESPN, 2015
There have been many films that portray students who have had difficult lives who achieved outstanding feats with the aid of a dedicated mentor. We might know the general outlines of these films. However, they portray young people who didn’t appear to have a chance of a fulfilling life, transformed, to achieve clearly inspiring feats.
McFarland, USA is one of these films. This is the true story of how Jim White coached a Latino high school cross-country team in McFarland, California. The team members and their families worked as farm laborers producing much of the food we eat in this country.
While the core of this story is true, Hollywood changed a number of the facts in an attempt to make the story even more compelling.
The film starts out with Jim White coaching a relatively affluent suburban high school football team. He comes into conflict with a student who didn’t have much respect for his coach or his teammates. This part of the story was not true, but here we see a real contrast between some attitudes in affluent suburban communities, and the reality of McFarland.
In reality, Jim White started teaching in McFarland. He taught there for many years before organizing a cross-country team for boys and girls. The girls’ cross-country team isn’t shown in the film.
The students at McFarland understandably felt alienated from their studies. They would have to work in the fields before school, as well as after school. Their future appeared to be a life of hard labor, or time spent in the local prison.
Initially Jim White had difficulty in recruiting a team. The parents of some of these students prohibited them from practicing with the team.. If these students practiced cross-country they wouldn’t have time to work in the fields. This meant that the income for these families would be cut back.
A turning point of the film was when Jim White rode on a truck early one morning to aid his students in picking cabbages in the fields. White felt that this was the most difficult work he had ever done. He learned a new appreciation for his students.
In another scene, White asked the team members to develop their strength in climbing hills. These hills appeared to be endless mounds, twenty to thirty feet high, covered in tarp.
One of the team members challenged White. He argued that these huge mounds consisted of massive quantities of almonds. While farm workers toil to pick these almonds, consumers enjoy these delicious treats.
We see how families are broken apart because of the very nature of the lives farmworkers need to lead. These workers need to follow the harvests. This means being apart from families for long periods of time.
While this farm-working community lived difficult lives, there was a real sense of community. There were fund-raising drives so the athletes might have the proper shoes and uniforms. The community also showed its appreciation of the White family for inspiring the members of the cross-country team.
At the state meet that was the climax to the film, Jim White gave a speech to the team where he argued that they were tougher than their opponents. The athletes from other schools didn’t need to work in the fields before and after classes. They had no idea of the difficult lives his team members lived.
Cross-country is a team sport where the lowest total times of a team’s first runners win a race. One of McFarland’s runners started the race too fast and had a slower total time as a result. Danny Diaz, who was the sixth fastest runner on the team, made up for this setback, and ran the race of his life. He was the hero of the day.
In another moving scene a teacher read a poem of one of the team members. In this poem the student expressed how running helped to free his mind from the day-to-day hardships he faced.
The cross-country teams from McFarland would win nine state championships in fourteen years. There have been other stories of long distance runners from other parts of the world that are just as compelling.
Abebe Bikila was used to running long distances in his homeland of Ethiopia. In his training regiment he always ran barefoot. He wasn’t one of Ethiopia’s best runner’s, but prior to the 1960 Rome Olympics one of the team members was injured and Bikila filled in for his spot.
Italy had colonized Ethiopia in the 1930’s and there was a bit of tension because of this history. When Bikila lined up with the other runners for the marathon, he had no shoes. He didn’t like the running shoes he had been given, and preferred to run barefoot.
On a road called the Appian Way, Bikila pulled away from the other runners and took a 30 second lead. The barefoot runner from Ethiopia, who no one thought had a chance, would win the 1960 Olympic Marathon.
We might consider that thousands of years before this race a slave by the name of Spartacus led a revolt of slaves that shook the Roman Empire. 90,000 slaves would join his cause, but the rebellion was defeated. The Romans crucified 6,000 of the slaves who took part in this revolt on a road called the Appian Way.
It may have been on this same road that Abebe Bikila, a Black athlete from the African nation of Ethiopia, won the marathon in the 1960 Olympics.
Josia Thugwane was born in South Africa in an atmosphere ruled by a set of laws known as apartheid. These laws meant that discrimination against the indigenous people of that part of the world was legal. Black people living in apartheid South Africa needed to carry a passbook at all times that needed to be updated every day. Thousands of Black people served time in prison merely because they violated the passbook laws.
Under these conditions Josia Thugwane’s parents abandoned him. An abusive uncle raised Josia and refused to allow him to attend school. He ran away from home and worked, for a time, as a gardener.
At this point in his life Josia thought about a saying in his native Zulu language. “If you want to succeed, forget everything.”
One day the young Josia saw a group of men running. Josia was wearing heavy shoes, and joined these men in their run for about nine miles. The men were on a running team sponsored by a local coal mining company and they allowed Josia to continue running with them.
Eventually, these runners purchased running shoes for Josia. The mining company hired Josia and he became a sweeper.
He would train running over one-hundred miles every week. In his first marathon, he had no idea how long a marathon was. At a certain point he wondered why this race was so long. To the complete surprise of his teammates he came in fifth in the race.
At another time, Josia learned there was a marathon that would award the winner a considerable monetary prize. He asked a teammate to drive him about 100 miles to the event. This teammate barely had enough gas to make the long trip. Josia and his friend only had enough money for food and gas to return home because he won the race.
After Josia won a marathon in Hawaii he purchased a car. This enabled him to visit his family more frequently. South African miners usually were only allowed to visit their families for two weeks per year.
Cars were extremely precious commodities in South Africa and Josia was the victim of an armed robbery. The thieves shot Josia in the face and he suffered a back injury. This was at a time just months before the Atlanta Olympics of 1996. However, because of a thorough rehabilitation program, Josia was able to recover.
Josia was the slowest of the four marathon runners South Africa sent to the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, Georgia. At this point in his life Josia did not know how to read. He didn’t feel that he represented the nation of South Africa. He said he was running for Nelson Mandela. Although he had never met Mandela, Josia felt that Mandela’s many years in prison, struggling against apartheid, made him like a father to the young runner.
When the runners lined up for the marathon in the Olympics, no Black athlete from South Africa had ever won a gold medal. South Africa has the largest deposits of gold in the world, and Black miners are the ones who take this gold out of the ground. Josia Thugwane was ready to get some of that gold his people took out of the ground.
Atlanta, Georgia was the hometown of Dr. Martin Luther King who experienced the legal discrimination of Jim Crow segregation. King had this to say about running: “If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk. . . if you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving.”
After running for about twenty-five miles three runners entered the stadium in Atlanta. The South Korean runner appeared to be the strongest. Then, Josia Thugwane felt a burst of energy. It was time to show the world that the Black people from South Africa were just a good as everyone else. Yes, it was time to win a piece of gold his people might have taken out of the ground. Josia Thugwane won the 1998 Olympics Marathon by three seconds.
Half a world away, there was bedlam in South Africa. The mines were closed for the day to celebrate Josia’s victory. Black and white South Africans rejoiced in the streets. Upon returning to South Africa, Josia met a joyful Nelson Mandela who agreed to give him a tutor who would teach him to read.
These stories give us a glimmer of what can be accomplished. Young people who have the most difficult lives have the ability to transform themselves and achieve greatness. There are many other stories that have this theme. This is one of the best reasons to change the priorities of this world so there can be more stories like the ones I reported in this review.