Full circle: South Africa’s 116-year history at the Olympic Games
While the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics will not take place on Saturday as planned, with the Covid-19 pandemic forcing organisers to postpone the event until next year, the delay offers a chance to reflect on South Africa's rich history at the Games.
Josia Thugwane on the podium at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Picture: Getty Images
Since two untrained athletes made a brave but lonely debut in the men's marathon in 1904, the country has had a 116-year roller coaster ride at the quadrennial multi-sport spectacle. These are some of SA's most memorable Olympic moments. Unofficial debut (St Louis, 1904) Though it would be another four years before the nation would enter an official team for the first time, two South African athletes competed at the 1904 Games. Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani, who were part of a Boer War exhibit at the World's Fair which was being held in St Louis at the…
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Since two untrained athletes made a brave but lonely debut in the men’s marathon in 1904, the country has had a 116-year roller coaster ride at the quadrennial multi-sport spectacle.
These are some of SA’s most memorable Olympic moments.
Unofficial debut (St Louis, 1904)
Though it would be another four years before the nation would enter an official team for the first time, two South African athletes competed at the 1904 Games.
Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani, who were part of a Boer War exhibit at the World’s Fair which was being held in St Louis at the time, entered the men’s marathon and made history by becoming the first black Africans to compete at the showpiece.
Taunyane took ninth place, despite being chased more than a kilometre off course by a pack of stray dogs, while Mashiani finished 12th.
Ironically, after being the first to represent the country, it would be 88 years before black South Africans would return to the Games, following a lengthy hiatus due to apartheid rule.
Jan Mashiani (left) and Len Taunyane ahead of the 1904 Olympic marathon
First medal (London, 1908)
With South Africa entering an official team for the first time, the nation bagged its first medal in one of the flagship events of the Games.
After winning his first-round 100m heat and his semifinal, sprinter Reggie Walker lined up among the medal favourites in the final.
Though he took the early lead, Walker was caught by American James Rector midway through the race, but the South African fought back and caught his opponent just before the line to secure the gold medal, equalling the Games record of 10.8.
Walker remains the only SA athlete to have won the Olympic 100m title.
Breakthrough women (1928, Amsterdam)
Having progressed as the fourth fastest team in the semifinals, the SA swimming squad set their sights on a historic medal in the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay final.
In the medal contest, while the United States charged to a world record up front, South Africa were locked in a battle for the last spot on the podium.
Digging deep, Kathleen Russell, Rhoda Rennie, Mary Bedford and Frederika van der Goes touched the wall in 5:13.4, edging out the German quartet by one second to secure bronze.
They became the first SA women to earn an Olympic medal.
Bouncing back (Barcelona, 1992)
Returning to the showpiece after more than 30 years of isolation, South Africa entered a fully representative team for the first time, and distance runner Elana Meyer delivered a standout performance in the women’s 10 000m final.
Shortly after the halfway mark, Meyer hit the front and ripped the field apart, with only Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia able to maintain the relentless pace.
Meyer gave it everything in an attempt to drop her last remaining opponent, and while Tulu held on to take the win, the gutsy South African grabbed silver in 31:11.75.
In a historic effort, Meyer became the first SA athlete to earn an Olympic medal in 32 years, and after the race she shared a memorable lap of honour with Tulu, who was the first black African woman to win a gold medal at the Games.
Elana Meyer was the first South African to earn a medal after readmission to the Games in 1992. Picture: Wessel Oosthuizen/Gallo Images
Humble champion (Atlanta, 1996)
When Josia Thugwane lined up for the start of the men’s marathon race, he wasn’t even considered the best of the contenders in the national team.
Quiet and unassuming, he flew under the radar in the build-up to the race, but by the time the small lead group approached the stadium near the finish, the diminutive athlete had a nation on its feet.
Drawing clear in the chase for the line, Thugwane completed the 42km race in 2:12:36, holding off Korean opponent Lee Bong-Ju by just three seconds.
It was the closest finish in the history of the Olympic marathon, but Thugwane had done enough, becoming the first black South African to win an Olympic gold medal nearly a century after Mashiani and Taunyane’s debut.
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