South Africa’s Olympic greats: past and present

South Africa’s Olympic greats: past and present

South Africa’s Olympic Greats: Past and Present

With the chaos of the past year, the Olympics serve as a great distraction and could not have come at a more perfect time. Well, perhaps it could have come at a better time, given so many attendees and participants have not managed to make it, but we’d like to focus on the silver lining.

Rand Rescue takes a look at some of the greatest South African athletes who have flown our flag at the Olympic games over the years. We’re holding thumbs for all SA’s Olympic hopefuls.

Len Taunyane & Jan Mashiani: 9th & 13th place, marathon – 1904

Two forgotten representatives of South Africa are undoubtedly Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani who represented SA in the 1904 Olympic marathon. They were not only our first olympians, but also the first Africans at the Olympic games.

Perhaps their records have gotten lost in history given their personal details had been ‘misrecorded’ for the games. Taunyane and Mashiane who had served with General Cronje and become prisoners of war with his surrender had been deported to St. Helena and subsequently found themselves at the Olympic games in Missouri due to their participation in the World Fair.

It is assumed that the two men either could not read or write or were not asked for their input into the recording of their details. Both their names were changed (to Lentauw and Yamasani respectively) and they were recorded as participants from the Zulu nation, although they were both of Tswana origin.

Their entry to the games had also been achieved in a rather odd fashion. Given the lack of foreign participation in the games, the US decided to invite everyone at the World’s Fair to participate. One of the events at the fair included the Anglo-Boer War Historical libretto (a historical re-enactment of the war), and both Taunyane and Mashiane were workers in this re-enactment. (The main attraction was General Cronje who played himself in the re-enactment).

And so it came to be that two Tshwana prisoners of war would become the first South African olympians, securing the 9th and 13th place in the marathon.

Reggie Walker: 1st place, 100m sprint – 1908

SA would secure our first gold medal at the next Olympic games in 1908. Walker is also the youngest male athlete to ever win the 100m gold (at 19 years and 128 days). This is often falsely recorded as Yohan Blake who won gold at the age of 21 years and 287 days.

Though Walker didn’t break the Olympic record at the games, he equalled it with a time of 10,8 seconds.

Walker stayed on in England after the games and would later serve in the 7th infantry in World War I, moving on to the South African Expeditionary Forces in 1917. He received a gunshot wound to the head during this time and was subsequently discharged.

Esther Brand: 1st place, women’s high jump -1952; 20th place, women’s discus – 1952

Esther Brand is another forgotten great who clinched a gold medal for SA at the Olympics.

Brand held world rankings ranging between 5th and 1st from 1939 to 1952 in high jump and equalled the world record in 1941. Although not fairing that well in the discus, it is remarkable that she showed versatility in her athleticism and competed in these divergent disciplines.

Zola Budd 7th place, women’s 3 000m – 1984

Zola Budd may not hold the top spot as Olympic athlete, but given the controversy of the event and her position as 5 000m record holder, she still deserves a spot in this list.

Budd is perhaps most well known for being the only athlete to choose barefoot running.

Budd broke the 5 000m world record for the first time in South Africa in 1984 at the age of 17. Given sanctions on South Africa, the IAAF refused to ratify her record and she was not allowed to compete in international events. Budd subsequently secured the record for Great Britain with a much faster time in 1985.

Given the bar on her international participation, Budd’s father was convinced to seek British citizenship for her which would allow her to compete at the 1984 Olympics. She was a fast favourite to win the women’s 3 000m. Unfortunately Budd and competitor Mary Decker would bump into each other during the race. This collision saw Decker stepping on Budd’s ankle with a spiked shoe, and Decker subsequently lost her footing and fell on her hip, injuring her.

Bud maintained the lead for a while, but whether the emotional or physical trauma of the event – she lost her pace and eventually ended the race in 7th place.

Dave Carstens: 1st place: men’s light heavyweight boxing – 1932

South Africa has a few noteworthy boxers we could mention here, but Dave Carstens found unexpected fame as a beacon of hope for South Africa and the world during a depressing era.

As one of only 11 South Africans to attend the 1932 Olympics during the Great Depression, our Olympic team’s journey to Los Angeles had literally taken a month. Carstens had journeyed by train to Cape Town for two days, then boarded a Union Castle mail ship which traveled across the Atlantic for 18 days to Southampton, before undertaking another Atlantic crossing to New York, which lasted 5 days, and further stopovers after reaching US shores to make it to the games.

At the young age of 18, the South African beat his German, Danish and Italian rivals to claim the victory for his country at the games.

Caster Semenya: 1st place: women’s 800 m – 2012 & 2016

Caster Semenya’s victories for South Africa have not been without controversy. And although she’s been allowed to compete several times since IAAF investigations, her reputation and perhaps spirit have been tarnished through many of these controversies.

Nevertheless, her multiple records and victories still bring pride to South Africans, and are perhaps even more meaningful given the hardships she faced.

There are still those who contend that Semenya should not be allowed to compete, and yet geneticists and endocrinologists have stated time and again that the way these restrictions are applied on Semenya are quite fallacious. One such specialist explained that, should we test all participants in the Olympics for hormonal levels and evaluate their genetic advantages, we’d find that there is no real equality. One scientist indicated that, should we test someone like Husain Bolt, we’d probably find that he has remarkable genetic advantages over his competitors, and some male and female participants would undoubtedly show far higher levels of testosterone than others.

That aside, we are proud of Semenya’s feats over the years, she has set multiple world records and world’s firsts during her career.

Natalie du Toit: 1st place: women’s 100m freestyle, 100m freestyle, 400m freestyle, 200m individual medley, 50m freestyle – 2004; 2nd place: women’s 100m backstroke – 2004; first place, women’s 50m freestyle, 400m freestyle, 200m individual medley, 100m freestyle, 100m butterfly – 2008; 1st place: women’s 200m individual medley, 100m butterfly, 400m freestyle – 2012; 2nd place: women’s 100m freestyle – 2012

Natalie du Toit may be a paralympian and not prominent at the able-bodied Olympics (although she is noteworthy for representing South Africa at both the Olympic and Paralympic games) – but she is undoubtedly one of our greatest athletes of all time.

She is the first athlete to bear the flag for her country at both games in a single year and was awarded the Laureus World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability in 2010 for ‘breaking down the barriers between disabled and able-bodied sports.

She was the first athlete in history to qualify for the final in the 800m able-bodied freestyle event and was awarded the first David Dixon Award for Outstanding Athlete at the Manchester Commonwealth games. Though she could not manage to clinch a win at the able-bodied Olympics, she won gold in the 800m freestyle at the All-Africa Games in 2003 as well as silver and gold medals in the 800m and 400m freestyle respectively at the Afro-Asian Games in the same year. 

Sunette Viljoen: 2nd place: women’s javelin – 2016

Sunette Viljoen may not have claimed as many victories for SA as other athletes, but she is noteworthy for her versatility.

Not only is she a former SA javelin champ and Olympic medal winner, but she was also a professional cricketer who represented team SA from 2000 to 2002 and starred in the 2000 World Cup in New Zealand with a test cricket batting average of 44 and bowling average of 33.

Frantz Kruger: 3rd place: men’s discus – 2000; 3rd place, 5th place: men’s discus – 2004; 11th place: men’s discus – 2008

Frantz Kruger may never have seized the top two spots at the Olympics for SA, but it is noteworthy that he has obtained gold medals at other events during his tenure as SA athlete from 1994 to 2010.

A career span of this kind is quite an achievement for any athlete, especially in such events focused on sheer power. He took his first gold medals in 1994 at the African Junior Championships and World Junior Championships, and claimed his last gold at the African Championships in 2004.

George Hunter: 1st place: men’s light heavyweight boxing – 1948

George Hunter is another boxer deserving of a mention, but his achievements are perhaps best framed as being but one of the most successful South African boxing teams to ever represent us at the Olympics.

Hunter won several gold medals at world championships in his run-up to the Olympics.

Out of 90 amateur bouts, he won 82, lost a mere 5 and drew in 3. He became SA middleweight champ in 1947 before moving on to the light heavyweight.

A boilermaker by trade, Hunter defeated world favourite rivals Ray Edwards, Charles Spieser, Harry Siljander, Mauro Cia and Donald E Scott to claim the gold for SA.

Penny Heyns: 1st place: women’s, 100m & 200m breaststroke – 1996; 3rd place, 100m breaststroke – 2000

Penny Heyns is perhaps best known for being the youngest South African to represent team SA on our re-entry to international sports in 1992, but her feats don’t end here.

Penny Heyns took the gold for SA in the 100m and 200m breaststroke at the 1996 games and achieved another world first feat in the process since no other woman had ever achieved gold in both these events at the Olympics. To add to this, Heyns would be the first to set 11 World records in 3 months on 3 different continents, and eventually held 5 of the 6 breaststroke records available – another world’s first.

Wayde van Niekerk & Cheslin Kolbe: 1st place: men’s 400m; 1st place, men’s 7’s rugby – 2016

You may find it odd that we group these two together, given they participated in highly divergent sports, but we reckon we may as well remind everyone of the familial links between these two South African greats.

Wayde van Niekerk and Cheslin Kolbe are cousins, after all. Added to this, Kolbe’s own father was a formidable rugby player, but was denied entry into professional rugby due to apartheid restricitons. Wayde van Niekerk holds the World’ record for the 400m. Although Kolbe does not hold a similar record, his position on the Springbok’s team is noteworthy. He may not be the shortest player on the field, but he is currently the smallest player in his position as wing. In fact, Kolbe was told time and again that he was too short to play in this position – luckily for us, he persisted.

It would come as no surprise to South Africans that Kolbe with his fast feet had initially been a formidable track athlete as well. In this case he would prove to be a bit short to compete on a professional level though.

We’re eager to see what the family duo have to offer in their respective disciplines in future.

We can’t discount the rest of the 7s team who worked with Kolbe to grab the gold, of course. As each player is equally worthy of praise.

Chad le Clos: 4th place: men’s 400m individual medley – 2012; 1st place: men’s 200m butterfly – 2012; 2nd place – men’s 100m butterfly; 2nd place: men’s 200m freestyle; 4th place: men’s 400m butterfly; 2nd place: men’s 100m butterfly

Le Clos gained fame not merely for being a noteworthy likeable athlete (in addition to his dad winning hearts at the Olympics), but he also became the most decorated South African Olympic athlete in 2016.

Records and medals aside, le Clos made headlines after realising a teen’s dream by taking her to her matric dance. The teen, Melanie Olhaus, had been one of a large group of South Africans welcoming the Olympic team back at OR Tambo International Airport in 2012. After spotting her poster reading, “Chad, will you be my matric dance date?” the athlete swiftly agreed.

Le Clos is also known for his rivalry with US swimmer Michael Phelps. Perhaps the most telling part of the rivalry is that Phelps had been Le Clos’s hero before the latter beat Phelps in the 200m butterfly in 2012. The strained amicable relationship between the two deteriorated since and their rivalry has sparked many a meme. Many athletes and supporters have criticised Phelps for his lack of sportsmanship.

At the time of writing this article, Le Clos had secured his place in one of two finals he’s competing in for the 2020/21 Olympics, with the 3rd fastest time overall.

Tatjana Schoenmaker: 1st place: women’s 200m breaststroke – 2020/21; 2nd place: women’s 100m breaststroke – 2020/21

Tatjana Schoenmaker has managed to clinch two medals for team SA in the 2020/21 Tokyo Olympics underway and also set the first individual swimming world record for the Tokyo Olympics overall.

Schoenmaker wowed crowds with a time of 2 minutes and 18.95 seconds in the women’s 200m breaststroke, smashing the previous record of 2 minutes 19,11 seconds.

Rudolph Lewis: 1st place: men’s individual time trial cycling – 1912

With an HPI of 61,77, Rudolph Lewis is still believed to be the best South African cyclist to date.

The world has become quite captivated with Lewis’s biography, which has been translated into 22 languages. Hailing from Pretoria, Lewis worked full time underground in a gold mine and used his spare time to train in cycling, boxing and skating.

Lewis was one of 123 from 16 countries cycling at the games, and went on to beat all of his competitors in the only cycling event of the games. In addition, he was the only cyclist of 53 to finish a 150 mile qualifying race before the games.

Charles Winslow: 1st place: men’s singles & men’s doubles tennis – 1912; 3rd place: men’s singles tennis – 1920

Winslow is another entrant whose family are known for their sporting prowess. His father, Lyndhurst Winslow, was a professional cricketer who played for the Sussex County Cricket Club, and his son, Paul Winslow, was a South African test cricketer in his hayday.

Charles took podium for SA in both the singles and doubles tennis in 1912, and claimed 3rd place at the 1920 Olympics.

Winslow also held 2R rankings at Wimbledon and the US Tennis Open.

Flying the flag for SA?

Just like our Olympic giants, we needn’t stay on home turf to make it big and fly the flag for SA.

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Who are your favourite South African athletes in history? Be sure to let us know in the Facebook comments.

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