It was 1992. Finally we were allowed to participate in the world’s most prestigious sport event. Three decades earlier, UN General Assembly Resolution 1761 of 1962 in response to SA’s policy of apartheid had barred the nation from the Olympic Games.
But in 1992, South Africans sat glued to their TV screens hoping that our athletes would be good enough to stand on the Olympic podium in Barcelona and receive a medal. Many will remember Elana Meyer breaking away from the group during the 10 000m race. For many minutes her opponents were trailing. In the end she was beaten by an Ethiopian runner, but it didn’t matter, we had come second, we had won a silver medal.
SA has never made it to the top three of medal-winning countries at the Olympic Games, but we have shared some memorable moments with our athletes, who have made us proud.
First Olympic Gold Medal
The fourth modern Olympic Games, London, 1908
At the International Olympic Committee meeting in July 1907 a motion that the four British colonies in southern Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, Natal, the Orange River Colony and the Transvaal, should be allowed to participate at the Olympic Games in London under the umbrella name of “South Africa” was tabled. This motion was accepted.
Although time was short to organise enough funds to send a representative team to the Games in London, the SA Olympic Committee nominated a team of 15 – seven athletes, four cyclists, three tennis players and a fencer.
The 1908 team wore green with a yellow springbok. This remained the colours for Olympians until 1960.The sensation of these Games was 19-year-old Natalian Reg Walker, the number two South African sprinter in the team. Eddie Duffy was the South African champion.
Walker not only reached the final, but won, bringing home SA’s first gold medal at the Games.
SA’s other medal was a silver, won by Charles Hefferon. He was later awarded a gold after the man who crossed the finishing line first, Dierando Pietri, was disqualified.
The 5th Olympic Games,
At the Olympic Games in Stockholm 2 546 athletes from 28 countries participated. Only 55 of the participants were women.
The all-men SA team consisted of 21 members (seven athletes, a cyclist, a swimmer, a fencer, four tennis players and eight shooters). This team eventually proved to be the most successful team ever from SA.
The tennis players Charles Winslow and Harry Kitson combined to win the doubles. In the men’s final, Winslow defeated Kitson. Between the two they won two golds and a silver medal. Three days later, on July 7, Okey Lewis won the cycling road race.
The marathon was probably one of the most sensational highlights in the history of SA’s participation at the Games. South Africa was represented by two athletes, Ken McArthur and Christian Gitsham. The marathon took place in sweltering heat.
The SA runners ran together. Confident of victory, Gitsham stopped for water, expecting his colleague to join him, as agreed. Instead McArthur ran on, stretching his lead and taking him to certain victory over Gitsham by 58 seconds.
The 7th Olympic Games, Antwerp, 1920
SA was represented by the country’s largest team ever including a woman among the 48 participants. She was the swimmer Blanche Nash. Unfortunately she was eliminated early in all her events. The outstanding member in the South African team was Bevil Rudd. Bevil was a student and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford when World War I broke out.
In 1920 he won gold in the 400m, and also won a bronze medal in the 800m and a silver medal in the 4 x 400m relay. He became the first and, up to now, the only SA athlete to win a full set of medals at a single Olympic Games.
The tennis player Louis Raymond and the bantamweight boxer Clarence Walker also won gold medals.
The 8th Olympic Games,
At the Games 3 092 athletes from 44 nations participated. This was the best attended Games up to this time. SA was represented by 30 athletes. The outstanding sportsman at the Games was the phenomenal Finnish long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi. Having won three gold medals at the 1920 Games he added a further five gold medals to his collection during the 1924 Games. For South Africa the Games was somewhat of a disappointment. Willie Smith, the bantamweight boxer, won the country’s only gold medal.
The 9th Olympic Games,
SA entered a team consisting of 10 athletes, one cyclist, five swimmers, six boxers, one wrestler, one rower and one yachtsman – all five swimmers were women and the versatile Marjorie Clarke was the first woman to represent this country in track and field. Sid Atkinson won gold in the 110m hurdles, but it was the swimmers who made SA proud. The relay team of Rhoda Rennie, Freddie van der Goes, Mary Bedford and Kathleen Russell won the bronze medal.
The 10th Olympic Games,
Los Angeles, 1932
SA only sent a small team of 10 athletes. At the Games the boxers Lawrie Stevens and Dave Carstens won gold medals. In the track and field events, SA runner Marjorie Clarke participated in the 80m hurdles and the high jump. In both events she was up against probably the greatest woman athlete of the 20th century.
Her performances were creditable. In the 80m hurdles she finished third for a bronze medal.
The 11th Olympic Games, Berlin, 1936
The 1936 Olympic Games was the most controversial of the modern Olympics. In Germany the dictator Adolf Hitler was at the height of his power.
For South Africa the Games was a disaster. The country won only one medal – a silver medal in boxing. For the first time since 1924 there was also no woman in the SA team.
The 14th Olympic Games,
In London 4 099 athletes from 59 countries participated. This was the most athletes as well as the most countries ever to have participated in an Olympic Games. Only one woman was included in the SA team of 34 athletes. She was the sprinter Daphne Robb.
As was the case in 1932, the stars in the South African team were once again the boxers. Gerald Dreyer and George Hunter both won gold medals. Hunter was also adjudged to be the most scientific boxer at the Games.
The 15th Olympic Games, Helsinki, Finland, 1952
The Games at Helsinki saw the return to the Olympic arena of Russia. SA selected a team of no fewer than 65, including only five women.
Yet it was these women who brought glory back home to SA. Esther Brand won the high jump three months before her 30th birthday.
This gold medal was the first ever won by a South African woman at an Olympic Games. In the swimming pool a 16-year-old schoolgirl from East London, Joan Harrison, also won gold in the 100m backstroke.
It would be another 44 years before SA won another gold medal in the pool.
The 16th Olympic Games,
Melbourne, Australia, 1956
In 1956 the Olympic Games was for the first time hosted in the southern hemisphere. It was also for the first time obvious that the Olympic Games would in the future be used by countries to promote their political agendas.
For the SA athletes the Games was a major disaster when only four bronze medals were won. The country was expelled and only returned in 1992.
SA returns to the Modern Olympic Movement, 1992
In 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from jail. It was clear SA was now on the way to becoming a democratic state. After a visit by an IOC commission the country was invited on July 25, 1991 to participate at the Games in Barcelona in 1992.
During South Africa’s absence the standard of international sport had risen to heights unknown before. In the period between 1992 and 2010 SA won only four gold medals.
Perhaps the single most dramatic event of the Barcelona 1992 Games was the 10 000m women’s final.
The event was dominated by SA runner Elana Meyer who broke early, leaving the whole field trailing.
However, Ethiopian runner Derartu Tulu caught up and tailed Meyer for eight laps before finally sprinting past to take the gold medal.
Since 1960 South Africa had been banned from the Olympics because of apartheid. However, in their moment of glory, Meyer and Tulu set off on a joint victory lap.
In 1996 Penny Heyns won two gold medals in the swimming pool and Josiah Thugwane won the prestigious marathon in Atlanta.
In 2004 Lyndon Ferns, Ryk Neethling, Roland Schoeman and Dorian Townsend won the 4 x 100m freestyle relay at the games in Athens.
In 2008, South Africa won only one medal, thanks to long jumper Khotso Mokoena, who claimed silver in Beijing.