- By Celestine Karoney & Ian Williams
- BBC Sport Africa
“At home he is still my little boy.”
It seems that even when you are a World Championship silver medallist, your mother still says the same embarrassing things as any other mum.
Seratiwa Tebogo is speaking to BBC Sport Africa from Budapest where her son, 20-year-old Letsile Tebogo, surprised many pundits on Sunday by becoming the first African man to win a medal in the 100m at a World Athletics Championships.
Not only that, he is also the first man from Botswana to win a medal of any colour at the event.
“To say I’m proud is an understatement,” says a beaming Seratiwa.
“It’s more about Africa than Botswana and a young boy putting Africa on the map at such a global level. It’s so joyful and prideful.”
A fast man of few words
The reason many were surprised by Tebogo’s performance in finishing second, behind the USA’s Noah Lyles and ahead of Great Britain’s Zharnel Hughes, was not solely due to his tender years.
He may be the world under-20 champion but this is his first season competing full-time on the senior circuit and the 100m is not even his favourite event, preferring the 200m.
“I just couldn’t believe it. I had to watch a replay on the big screen,” says Seratiwa, herself a former athlete who works as a secretary.
“That’s when it sank in – oh wow, Africa made it through Letsile Tebogo.”
Watching the race itself, however, is a less pleasant experience.
“You pray for him not to get a false start, that he doesn’t get a muscle pull,” she says. “So you don’t really get to concentrate fully on the race because you will be praying for his success. It’s quite a mixture of feelings.”
Sunday was the first day mother and son had seen each other in almost four months as Letsile has been based in Brescia in northern Italy since the end of April.
He had no idea his mother was in the stadium. Only after his media duties and drug testing could they catch up – although it seems the conversation might have been rather one-way in nature.
“Letsile is not a man of many words,” says Seratiwa.
“He was like, ‘Oh, you are here. How did you get here? Why didn’t you tell me?’
“I was like, ‘It would have spoiled the surprise’. We really missed each other. It was such an emotional reunion.”
Of course, competing on the global stage involves travel. For Letsile, this has often been with his mother by his side.
“Even when he was still in primary school, I went as far as Namibia. I was in Oregon [for last year’s World Championships]. I’ve been to quite some places,” she says.
“Budapest is such a peaceful place. People are so helpful and so jolly, and the country is beautiful.
“Most of these places like Budapest we never even knew existed. It’s such a privilege.”
More like ‘brother and sister’
Having raised Letsile as a single mum, Seratiwa says their relationship is that of a “brother and sister bond more than mother and son” – but that does not mean they are lacking in family.
“In Botswana, having birthed a child doesn’t make him yours alone,” she explains.
“We have this culture of raising a child as a family – the uncles, the aunts, the grandmothers.
“I remind him that it’s very important to give back to the community, never forget where you come from, because blessed is the hand that gives.
“I have instilled in him that being humble will take him places.”
So what was Letsile like as a child?
“Hyperactive” is the first answer, closely followed by “obedient”.
“We only got to rest when he was asleep,” reveals Seratiwa. “He always had to find something to do to keep him occupied. Even now, he’s still hyperactive. Very humble, very respectful – I haven’t had any issues with him thus far!”
She also offers an insight into Letsile’s diet and why, in the past, it might not have screamed future champion.
“As long as his tummy was full, he was good,” she says. “He likes junk food, but because of the status that he’s in, he has really reduced so much of it. He’s mostly trained to go on our staple organic foods like mabele [a sorghum porridge].”
A ‘return on investment’
Following his 100m silver medal, Tebogo is hoping to go one better in Friday’s 200m final.
Last month, he set a new African record of 19.50 seconds at the London Diamond League meeting, finishing second behind Lyles, just as he did in the 100m final in Budapest.
“What I want is a gold medal,” states Seratiwa. “But in athletics, there’s no formula. You never know what the day will bring. Only God knows what’s going to happen.”
It may sound as if she is putting pressure on her son but Seratiwa is aware that sporting success can be fleeting.
“Sport is a short-lived career. So my encouragement was for him to have at least basic education so that he has something to fall back on,” she adds.
“He has always been an average child at school, academically. As a mother, obviously, I would push him to do his school, but when you realise his love is mostly in sports, I decided to let him be.
“As parents, all we can do is advise them, show them the pros and cons of their dreams. Let’s not impose our dreams on our kids.”
And having spent years washing training kit and sacrificing her own travel plans with friends, how would Seratiwa describe Letsile’s rise to his status of athletics superstar?
“That is what we call return on investment,” she says with a smile.
“In the public eye you may see him as the star, but at home he is still my little boy.”