Despite the newly found success of Botswana in the short sprint events by virtue of the exploits of youngster Letsile Tebogo, the Southern African nation of about 2.6 million inhabitants is known for its rich tradition in the quarter mile, which is popularly referred to as the 400m. In the last decade, no African country comes close to Botswana in terms of its immense quality and depth in the male quarter mile sector.
Their steadiness and meteoric progression over the past decade has been so outstanding, given the fact that they were not regarded as a force to be reckoned with until the early 2000s. As a matter of fact, since 2011, no African nation has gone under 3 minutes in the 4×400m relay asides from the Southern African nation, who have done so five times.
Botswana started gaining ground after winning their maiden medal, which was GOLD in the 4×400m at the 2003 All African Games in Abuja, beating the defending champions, Nigeria on home soil. They sent shock waves to the world when they surprisingly got to the final in the 4×400m where they ultimately ended in 8th place at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, courtesy of California Molefe who was their main man in the 400m at that time. Nigeria won the Bronze medal in this race.
Molefe brought success to Botswana two years later after earning their first intercontinental senior Athletics medal, Silver, which was an upgrade from Obakeng Ngigwa’s first intercontinental medal for the country, Bronze at the World U20 Championships in 2004. Molefe’s Silver was won in the men’s 400m at the 2006 World Indoor Championships in Moscow.
The following year, he won the 400m and his side retained their 4×400m title at the All-African Games where he ran a terrific anchor leg to hold off Godday James of Nigeria– a young Isaac Makwala ran a brilliant third leg. At the World Championships later that year, Molefe exited the competition in the semifinals and the 4×400m squad finished 14th out of 15 countries.
The span between 2008 to 2011 witnessed a bit of a lull as Botswana male quarter milers didn’t win titles on both the continental or intercontinental stages. They also missed out on the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China. Nevertheless, some notable moments were created: Makwala won his first senior individual medal—a Silver medal, at the African Championships in 2008. Also, Botswana’s 4×400m quartet claimed Silver and Bronze respectively at the 2010 African Championships in Nairobi and 2011 All-African Games in Maputo.
2012 was ‘The light at the end of the tunnel’ for Botswana – even though they missed out on qualifying in the 4×400m at the London Olympics – as they finally won themselves a title. Makwala became the first male Batswana to win the 400m in the history of the African Championships, which doubled as his first individual title. It was at this point that Makwala began to cement his place as one of the best quarter milers on the continent.
In 2014, Makwala retained his African title in a Championship Record (CR) of 44.23s, which was not too far from the then-African Record held by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Gary Kikaya – 44.10s. He then anchored his team to another GOLD in the 4×400m relay.
The African Record finally got to Botswana when Makwala became the first African quarter miler to go under 44s at the La-Chaux-de-Fonds. running a scorching time of 43.72s. He went on to finish 5th in the 400m final at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing. South Africa’s Wayde Van Niekerk went on to win GOLD and shattered the African Record (AR) in this final. Botswana placed 9th overall in an NR of 2:59.95, becoming the fourth African country after Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa to go under 3 minutes.
After the disappointing 5th place, Makwala went on to decimate the field at the All-African Games in Brazzaville while his compatriot, Onkabetse Nkobolo took the Bronze. They settled for Silver in the 4×400m, with Makwala running the anchor leg.
2016 saw the emergence of teenagers Baboloki Thebe and Karabo Sibanda into the senior ranks, thereby increasing the depth of the team. The duo went 1-2 in the 400m and with a combined effort, won the 4×400m at the African Championships in Durban. Sibanda went on to make the Olympic 400m final, finishing 5th with an impressive PB of 44.25s. He was the youngest sprinter in the field at barely 18! Sibanda alongside Makwala, Nkobolo and Leaname Maotoanong placed 5th in the 4×400m final with an NR of 2:59.09, making them the third African nation after Kenya and Nigeria to go under 3 minutes at the Olympics.
At the World Relays in 2017, Botswana narrowly missed the GOLD as USA’s LaShawn Merritt slightly held off Sibanda by a meter to take the honours in 4×400m. They were considered potential contenders in the 4×400m in the run-up to the World Championships but after Makwala attempted the double – 200m and 400m – alongside the controversy and food poisoning issue, he was unable to compete in the 4×400m and was replaced by Nijel Amos, which automatically saw their dreams dashed as they finished 7th in their heats and unable to qualify to the final. Makwala eventually competed in the 200m final where he placed 6th while Thebe finished 4th in the 400m final.
The Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018 proved to be one of Botswana’s defining performances ever as they stunned favourites Jamaica and the Bahamas to strike GOLD in the 4x400m. Makwala also won his first intercontinental individual title in the 400m to end the Games on a high. Later that year at the African Championships in Asaba, Thebe defended his 400m title. His win revealed how Botswana had dominated the event in the past four editions of the championship. Sadly, in the 4x400m, they did not finish after a mistake.
2019 started on a good note but ended on a sour note for the team. Leungo Scotch ensured the 400m title remained in Botswana as he claimed the top spot at the African Games in Rabat. He also anchored his team to the 4×400m title. However, at the World Championships in Doha, they got disqualified in the 4×400m and none of their athletes made the final of the 400m.
COVID came and the Olympics were shifted to the same year as the 2021 World Relays in Poland. Botswana fielded a 4x400m quartet of veteran Makwala, Boitumelo Masilo, Dituro Nzamani, and Leungo Scotch who went ahead to win a Bronze medal and qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. The depth and competitiveness of their squad saw only Makwala being retained from that team ahead of the Olympics, while Bayapori Ndori, Zibane Ngozi and Thebe were drafted into the squad to replace the other three who had competed in Poland.
The quartet did remarkably well by smashing the 21-year-old African Record (AR) held by Nigeria twice! In the heats, they finished 2nd behind the USA in a new AR of 2:58.33. In the final, they stormed to Bronze in an improved AR of 2:57.27, becoming the first African nation to run under 2:58 minutes. They also became the first African nation since Nigeria last won Bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics, to medal in the 4×400m. Nigeria remains the only African nation so far to win GOLD in the 4×400m relay at the Olympics. Makwala finished 7th in his first-ever individual Olympic final.
After their fairy tale season, Botswana quarter milers tried to pick up from where they stopped. At the 2022 African Championships in Mauritius, they won the 4x400m title. However, a new champion emerged in the men’s 400m in the person of Zambia’s Muzala Samukonga who narrowly edged Ndori in 45.31s to 45.35s to take GOLD. This was the first time the 400m continental title – the African Games and African Championships – has been won by another nation asides Botswana since 2012.
Ndori finished 6th in the 400m final and also anchored his 4×400m team to another 6th place finish at the World Championships in Oregon. A few weeks later, they ended their season with a Silver medal in the 4×400m at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham where Ndori ran the anchor leg.
The brilliance of Botswana’s quarter milers is not restricted to the senior rank but also extends to the juniors as well. The current CR in the 400m at the World U20 Championships is held by Anthony Pesela, which was achieved in Nairobi in 2021 where they also became the first African nation to win the men’s 4×400m relay. Botswana owns the African Junior Record in the 400m and 4×400m, which were both set in 2016.
As the 2023 season unfolds, the Batswana will be hoping to grasp something that has eluded them for decades: a medal at the World Championships. The 2023 World Championships will be held from 19th to 27th of August in Budapest, Hungary.