Isaac Makwala, the world leader at 400m going into the World Championships in Beijing, had established himself in 2014 as one of the best long sprinters in the world in La Chaux-de-Fonds meeting (Switzerland), when he accomplished the fastest double ever in a single day at 200m and 400m, breaking the 400m African Record in 44.01 and 90min later winning the 200m in 19.96.
Born in 1986 in Tutume, a village in the north-east of Botswana, Isaac Iak Malwala is the cadet of one brother and four sisters. One of his sisters was running at school, but although he started sports with running at primary school level, he was not much into athletics and didn’t follow his sister’s steps. Rather, he preferred football and ended up playing at junior level. As school, he graduated to a B level in carpentry and joinery in 2004 to 2006.
As a result, it was not before 2006 that Makwala started focusing on athletics. As he was watching meeting broadcasts, seeing himself on television became one of his motivations to train. Coached by Bobby Gasietsiwe, he took third place at 400m during the Botswana National
In 2007, he participated in his first competition abroad, set a 46.48 personal best in Eindhoven and took part in the All-Africa Games in Alger, reaching the semi-finals at 400m before winning the gold medal with his Botswana teammates in the 4x400m. The relay team was selected for the World Championships, in Osaka, where Makwala ran the first leg (46.8).
In order to prepare the 2008 Olympic year, Makwala obtained a sponsorship to train in Senegal at the IAAF High Performance Training Centre in Dakar, under Ivorian coach Anthony Koffi. In May, he missed the gold medal at the African Championships in Addis Ababa by a few thousandths of a second as the photofinish declared Sudanese Nagmeldin Ali Abubaker the winner, both runners being timed in 45.64. This performance was the best of the year in Botswana and was well inside the “B” standard to qualify for the Beijing Olympics (45.95). However, Makwala didn’t compete there. Since California Molefe and Gakologewang Masheto had run faster than the “A” standard (45.55) the previous year with 45.36 and 45.41, those two were selected for Beijing. And in spite of the good depth of 400m running in the country, the relay was not sent to China, as the aggregate of the two times achieved by the national team was not good enough to be part of the 16 best nations in the world.
In 2009, Makwala improved as a 200m runner as well, clocking 20.73 and was selected in the individual 400m at the Berlin World Championships, where he didn’t advance to the next round.
2010 was the first year where no personal bests were set, although the sprinter gained in experience with a few meetings in Europe and participation in the 400m and 4x400m relay at the African Championships, in Kenya, and Commonwealth Games, in India.
A scholarship was offered to Makwala in late 2010, so he moved to Jamaica to train at the High Performance Centre for two years, under Coach Glen Mills, world-famous as Usain Bolt’s coach. In 2011, he failed to qualify for the Daegu World Championships, but work paid off in one year later, as he became African Champion in Benin with 45.25, just 0.02 off the National Record held by Molefe since 2004, and earned his ticket to the London Olympics. He placed 4th in heats with 45.67.
As his grant ended after the Olympics, Makwala came back to Botswana, now coached by Justice Dipeba, a former sprinter who took part in the 1996 Olympic Games and 1997 World Championships at 200m, with a 20.95 personal best from 1995. In spring 2013, the competitions didn’t provide satisfying results, with most of the races over 47 seconds. However, his form exploded on 7 July in La Chaux-de-Fonds with a stunning 20.21 at 200m, a new National Record, lowering his personal best by 0.52, just 1h15 after having placed third at 400m in 45.86. Later that month, in Sundsvall (Sweden), Makwala ran his first 100m in competition, but he pulled a hamstring and crossed the finish line walking and limping. How fast could he have gone that day, nobody will ever know, but he still set a new National Record in 10.40! Not yet healed, he ran the 200m heats (20.84) and the 4x400m (45.15 for in 3rd leg) during the World Championships
In order to prepare 2014, he resumed training in early October, didn’t go on holiday and trained more than ever before. His early results in 2014 came unnoticed; 19.7 hand time for 200m in Germiston against a -1.4 wind on 15 March, or his 100-200m double in 10.14 (wind +2.2) and 20.33 in Gaborone. In spring, he lowered the National Record twice at 400m: 44.92 in Potchefstroom on 10 May and 44.83 in Ostrava on 17 June. And again, in his favourite track in La Chaux-de-Fonds on 6 July, Makwala surprised again with the fastest 200m/400m combination ever in one day. At 2:50 pm, he won the 400m in 44.01, by 1.20 over teammate Pako Seribe, breaking Congolese Gary Kikaya’s African Record (44.10 in 2006). This time ranked him the 11th fastest performer ever at the one-lap event. And at 4:20, he won the 200m in 19.96, becoming only the third African after Frankie Fredericks and Francis Obikwelu to dip under 20sec at 200m with 19.96.
Such a feat brought brought high expectations for the Commonwealth Games, in Glasgow, later that month. The fastest in the heats (45.33), Makwala couldn’t advance to the final after a mediocre outcome in semi-final (45.57). The sprinter explained his counter-performance with a difficulty to acclimatise to the cold weather. A couple of weeks later, a hot and dry climate was guaranteed in Marrakech during the African Championships. With temperatures varying between 28 and 38° C, Makwala actually had his busiest week ever, taking part in seven races in five days, including preliminary rounds. He first silenced critics in winning the 400m in 44.23, a new Championships record. He then took silver at 200m in 20.51 behind Ivorian Hua Wilfried Koffi (20.25), and later that same day, won the 4x400m with a 44.47 anchor leg.
The 2014 season was very long for Makwala with no less than 37 races at 100, 200, 400 or 4x400m, and ran faster than his previous 400m personal best of 45.25 on ten occasions. Fatigue forced him to cancel some races in order to get ready for the Continental Cup in Marrakech. In Morocco, the Botswanian placed second at 400m to La Shawn Merritt and the following day was sixth at 200m before helping the Africa team secure gold in 3:00.02 in the mile relay.
Makwala is a sprinter with a wide range of possibilities, a rare combination of power, strength and endurance, as he hopes to run a fast 100m and has already run a 500m time trial in 59.0.
Botswana built up a 4x400m relay strong enough to be invited in April 2015 to the Penn Relays, in Philadelphia, and then take part in the IAAF World Relays a week later, in the Bahamas, in May. That’s how Makwala’s outdoor campaign started, but unfortunately, he injured his hip. Yet, he didn’t change his competition programme and raced five individual 400m in five weeks, with times ranging between 45.10 and 46.40 as his health was getting worse.
He then took a break and went to his European base in Düsseldorf, Germany, to train with the group managed by athletes’ representative Oliver Topueth. Makwala was guided by Justice Dipeba via phone and Facebook as the coach stayed in Botswana, but he still had a training partner, relay teammate Pako Seribe (20.17 at 200m in February and 45.04A at 400m last year). Both were helping each other taking times.
A day before resuming competition on 5 July in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a place that he calls his second home since he first broke the 400m African record in the Swiss town, Makwala watched on TV South African Wayde van Niekerk breaking his record with 43.96 during the Diamond League meeting in Paris Saint-Denis. This only gave the Botswanian extra motivation to run even quicker the next day. He therefore took all the risks, passing at 200 m in 20.8 and 300m in 31.5, faster than he had ever run and managed to maintain his form through the end of the race as the clock stopped at 43.72, a new African Record. The performance moved him up to fifth in the all-time lists.
In mid August, in the last phase of his preparation for the Beijing World Championships, he finally joined his coach Dipeba after having had to train by himself for close to 4 months.
Makwala’s nickname is “Badman”: “The name started on 2014 when I broke all sprint national records, then I just decided to call myself Badman… That’s Bad on track!”.
He is easily recognisable on the track, as during competitions he likes to wear a flashy yellow sleeve on his right forearm, as a kind of tribute to his favourite athlete, Sanya Richards-Ross who was the first to wear them. In his spare time, the sprinter goes to the cattle post to look after his livestock and still loves watching football. He says he is a big fan of Manchester United and also of South African team Kaizer Chiefs F.C., based in Johannesburg.