South Africa at the Olympics, Part 3


24 July 2012


How much do you know about South Africa’s history at the Olympics? Catch up on the records and the trivia in the third of three articles covering the 18 Olympic Games the country has competed in.


Barcelona 1992


Nelson Mandela’s release from prison after 27 years on 11 February 1990 paved the way for South Africa’s readmission into the international sporting family after three decades of apartheid-induced isolation.


South Africa had last competed at an Olympic Games in Rome in 1960. The country’s first multi-racial team, representing the new democracy that would be formally ushered in with the country’s first free elections in 1994, took part in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.


A team of 94 South African athletes competed under the flag of the country’s National Olympic Committee (NOC), the forerunner of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee.


After such a long time out of international competition, the team made a minimal impression on the medal table, winning just two silver medals to finish in 41st place, but one of those silvers left an indelible impression on all who witnessed it.


Both medals were won on 7 August. The first success was achieved by tennis players Wayne Ferreira and Pietie Norval, who finished runners-up to Boris Becker and Michael Stich of Germany in the men’s doubles, which the Germans won 7-6(7-5), 4-6, 7-6(7-5), 6-3.


There were high hopes for 10 000 metres athlete, Elana Meyer, as she lined up in the final of the event. From the start, she set the pace, and one by one the other runners began to fall back, excepting the Ethiopian Derartu Tulu. Tulu had earlier won their heat ahead of the final, but Meyer had not appeared to stretch herself.


With the race almost over, Tulu kicked for home and Meyer had no answer to her injection of pace. She, however, crossed the line in a very comfortable second place.


Tulu, as winners are wont to do, grabbed an Ethiopian flag to drape over her shoulders for a victory lap of the track. Meyer, with the NOC flag hanging over her shoulders, joined her and the symbolism of the coming together of black and white, given South Africa’s past history, became one of the most memorable images of the Barcelona Olympics.


Change was taking place in the former Soviet Union, which competed as the Unified Team and employed the Olympic flag as its flag. They combined to nonetheless top the medal standings, winning 45 gold medals and 112 medals in all. The USA, with 37 golds and 108 medals overall, finished second, with Germany in third.


Atlanta 1996


Four years later, Atlanta hosted the 1996 Olympic Games. This time, South Africa, with Nelson Mandela now President of the country, competed under the colourful flag of a democratic nation.


Hopes of Olympic gold rested on the shoulders of breaststroke star Penny Heyns, who had set a 100 metres world record in March in Durban. She lived up to the hopes of the country, becoming the only female swimmer in Olympic history to do the double of wins in the 100 and 200 metres at the same Games.


Four years earlier, in Barcelona, she had finished 33rd in the 100 metres and 34th in the 200 metres, but Heyns was a different swimmer this time around and captured the 100 metres title in a world record time of 1:07.02, making her an instant national heroine.


She followed up that performance with another gold medal in the 200 metres, winning in an Olympic record of 2:25:41.


Heyns, who is the only swimmer in history to simultaneously hold the 50m, 100m, and 200m breaststroke world records at the same time, was named the Female Swimmer of the Year by Swimming World Magazine. She was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2007.


There was another gold medal for South Africa and it surprised most South African supporters. It came on the final day of competition in the men’s marathon when the diminutive Josiah Thugwane, standing only 1.58 metres tall and weighing just 45 kilograms, shocked an elite field to lift the title. He crossed the line in 2:12:36, only three seconds ahead of silver medallist Lee-Bong Ju.


“Who?” asked South African sports fans. “Who?” asked the world, but they soon knew who he was: the South African national champion in 2003, the winner of the Honolulu Marathon in 1995, and now the Olympic champion.


Hezekiel Sepeng picked up a silver medal in the 800 metres, which was won by the Norwegian Vebjørn Rodal, whose winning time of 1:42.58 was an Olympic record. Sepeng’s 1:42.74 was also inside the previous record set by Brazil’s Joaquim Cruz in 1984 in Los Angeles.


Marianne Kriel, the co-captain of Team South Africa, won a bronze medal in the 100 metres backstroke. She had previously captained the South African teams to the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, and the 1995 All-Africa Games in Harare, Zimbabwe.


With five medals in total, including three golds, South Africa finished 27th on the medal table. Hosts, the USA, finished first, with 44 gold medals and a total of 101 in all. Russia placed second and Germany third.


Sydney 2000


After a very tight battle with Beijing for the right to host the Olympics, Sydney was the venue for the 2000 Games. South Africa sent a 127-strong team Down Under.


The country failed to produce an Olympic champion, but there were two silver medal winners.


High jump star Hestrie Cloete had no trouble achieving the automatic qualifying height for the final of 1.94 metres. Chasing gold, she produced a season’s best height of 2.01 metres, but was pipped for first place by Russia’s Yelena Yelesina on a count back.


The other silver medal winner came from a surprise source, Terence Parkin, a deaf breaststroke swimmer, who needed to watch for a light instead of listen for a gunshot to start events.


He had made it into the final of the 200 metres after finishing fourth in his semi-final, but only 0.21 separated the top four finishers. Earlier, he had finished third in his qualifying heat.


Ironically, it was the first three men from that heat that went on to win medals, with Italy’s Domenico Fioravanti in first, Parkin in second, and another Italian, Davide Rummolo, in third.


Penny Heyns, after a sensational 1999, which had seen her crowned Swimming World Magazine’s Female Swimmer of the Year for a second time, struggled to find her best form in Sydney.


She did, however, add a bronze to the two golds she had won in Atlanta by finishing third in the 100 metres, just ahead of fellow South African Sarah Poewe, who had beaten Heyns in the semi-finals on her way to a win. Poewe later went on to swim for Germany.


Llewellyn Herbert, who was a favourite to win gold, had a poor lane draw in the 400 metres hurdles final, but claimed bronze in a very fast race, clocking 47.81 seconds.


Frantz Kruger finished third in the discus behind 1996 Olympic champion Lars Riedel and Virgilijus Alekna, who followed up his victory in Sydney with another gold medal at the Athens Olympics.


South Africa ranked a lowly 55th on the medal table. It was tight at the top where the USA narrowly edged out Russia for first place. The Americans produced 37 champions and won 92 medals in total, while the Russians won 32 events and tallied 88 medals overall. China finished third.


Athens 2004


Cape Town had bid to host the 2004 Olympic Games, but the honour went to Athens, Greece. A team of 106 athletes represented South Africa.


The star of the team was Roland Schoeman, along with his fellow 4 x 100 metres freestyle relay team-mates: Ryk Neethling, Lyndon Ferns and Darian Townsend.


Together, they had realised that their individual times in the event should put them in with a shot of winning a medal. Not many other people had realised this.


However, in the heats they beat the USA into second place, with Italy and the Netherlands in third and fourth respectively, and had recorded the fastest qualifying time for the final of 3:13.84.


Still, most people expected the USA, with a full strength team contesting the final, and Australia to battle it out for the gold medal. They were wrong. Schoeman gave South Africa a strong early lead and they never gave it up as the quartet went on to claim gold in a world record 3:13.17, ahead of the Netherlands and the United States.


Thanks to their inspirational victory, swimming took on a greater significance in the South African sporting psyche than ever before.


Schoeman went on to qualify fastest for the final of the 100m freestyle and was joined in the final by Ryk Neethling.


With medals on the line, Schoeman got off to a blinding start and led at halfway, but Dutch star Pieter van den Hoogenband just managed to haul him in, capturing the gold medal in 48.17 seconds. Schoeman finished second in 48.23, with Australia’s Ian Thorpe in third, narrowly ahead of Neethling.


Contesting the 50m freestyle, Schoeman once again recorded the fastest time of the semi-finals. He went on to finish third in the final in a time of 22.02 seconds, becoming only the second South African after Bevil Rudd in 1920 to win a gold, silver and bronze medal at a single Olympic Games.


Eight years after Hezekiel Sepeng won silver in Atlanta, Mbulaeni Mulaudzi repeated the feat in the 800 metres in Athens. Russian Yuri Borazakovskiy took gold in 1:44.45, just six-hundredths of a second ahead of Mulaudzi, who edged out world record holder Wilson Kipketer for second place. Sepeng finished sixth.


Hestrie Cloete repeated as a silver medal winner in the women’s high jump. She cleared 2.02 metres, but Russia’s Yelena Slesarenko took the title with a clearance of 2.06 metres, an Olympic record, and only three centimetres off Stefka Kostadinova’s world record, which was established way back in 1987.


Donovan Cech and Ramon di Clemente finished third in the men’s coxless fours to take bronze, the first ever medal for South African rowers at the Olympic Games.


With a gold, three silver medals and two bronze medals, South Africa finished 43rd on the medal table.


First place went to the USA, with 35 golds and 103 medals in total. China recorded its best ever result, winning 32 gold medals and 63 medals in total. Russia was third with 28 champions and a total of 92 medals.


Beijing 2008


The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games began with a spectacular ceremony, which lasted over four hours and was said to have cost over US$100 million to produce. Results for South Africa’s team of 136 athletes were, unfortunately, far from spectacular.


The Games opened on 8 August and it took until 18 August for a South African to be awarded a medal. That honour went to long jumper Khotso Mokoena, whose leap of 8.24 metres in the fourth round took him to second place behind Irving Saladino’s 8.43 metres.


That silver, however, proved to be the only medal of the Games for South Africa. Only at Berlin in 1936 had the team fared as poorly.


There were some good performances from South African athletes and a number of national records were set, but they were not good enough to claim medals. Jean Basson, with fourth place in the 200 metres freestyle, came closest to joining Mokoena on the podium.


The team shared 70th place on the medal table, alongside Chile, Ecuador, Iceland, Malaysia, Singapore, Sudan and Vietnam.


Hosts China, who had poured massive amounts of money and expertise into the preparations of their athletes, came out on top of the table with 51 gold medals and a total of 100 medals. The USA was second with 36 gold medals and 110 medals in all, with Russia in third.


London 2012


The 2012 London Olympic Games proved to South Africa’s most successful Olympics since the country was readmitted to the Olympic fold in Barcelona in 1992.


Cameron van der Burgh got the ball rolling with a convincing victory in a world record time in the 100 metres breaststroke of 58.46 seconds.


Then, in one of the shocks of the Games, 20-year-old Chad le Clos handed American legend his first defeat in the 200 metres butterfly in over a decade to snatch gold in an African record of 1:52.96.


The country next sprang another surprise in the water, this time in the men’s rowing lightweight fours, as Matthew Brittain, Lawrence Ndlovu, John Smith and James Thompson, fourth with 500 metres to go, finished furiously to win gold ahead of Great Britain and Denmark.


That was followed by Le Clos finishing second to Phelps in the 100m butterfly. The American had turned in seventh place at the halfway mark, with le Clos in seventh!


South Africa’s next medal, a bronze, came from Bridgitte Hartley, who claimed the first ever canoe sprint medal for the country in the women’s 500m.


It was a tight contest for third place, but as she had done in the semi-finals, where she won her heat, Hartley finished strongly to earn herself a place on the podium.


The country’s final medal of the London Olympics came in the women’s 800 metres. Caster Semenya, 21, showed off her best form in some time to finish second behind world champion Maria Savinova in a season’s best time of 1:57.23.


That silver medal, the country’s second in London, took the final medal haul to one silver better than Atlanta 1996, which had been South Africa’s best Games since readmission.


With three gold medals, two silvers and one bronze, South Africa finished 23rd on the medal table. The USA held off China for top spot, claiming 46 gold medals and 104 medals in all. China won 38 golds and 88 medals overall, while hosts Great Britain finished third with 29 gold medals and a total of 65 medals.


SA medals at the Olympic Games


In total, through 18 Olympic Games, from 1904 to 2012, including a ban covering the Olympics from 1964 to 1988, South Africa has won 76 Olympic medals in eight sports, 23 of which have been gold, 26 silver and 27 bronze.


The breakdown is as follows:
(gold, silver, bronze, total)


  • Athletics: 6 12 6 24


  • Boxing: 6 4 9 19


  • Swimming: 6 3 6 15


  • Tennis: 3 2 1 6


  • Cycling: 1 4 3 8


  • Rowing 1 0 1 2


  • Shooting: 0 1 0 1


  • Sprint canoeing: 0 0 1



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