You’re probably aware of this, but South Africans kinda love their sport. We talk about it, watch it, live vicariously through the players. It’s a common occurrence for South Africans to make an event of any day where we compete in an international sporting contest, either by throwing meat on a fire and cheering on the rugby, or – you know – throwing meat on a fire and cheering on the football (or soccer, if you prefer), or – just to mix things up a bit – throwing meat on a fire and cheering on our cricket team. Suffice it to say, South African livestock do not look forward to international sporting competitions. 🐏 🐓 🐖 🐂 🔥
We’re not a massive country, by any degree, but it’s safe to say that our presence in the world of international sport is disproportionate to our size and economic presence in the world, and we’ve had a fair run of big achievements over the years. Here, then, is a by-no-means comprehensive list of some of our biggest sporting achievements.
Elana Meyer 🏃
Alright, this was a long time ago, so let’s refresh our memories: it was 1992. The Summer Olympics were being hosted by Barcelona, and South Africa was competing for the very first time following the lifting of international sanctions. It was a positive time, and our athletes were greeted by rousing cheers from the international fans who wanted to let us know that they were all very happy to have us back.
Then came the 10 000m event and Elana Meyer. And there went Elana Meyer – rather fast, in fact. It became apparent very early that she was going to place, and she did, earning herself a silver medal – South Africa’s first post-apartheid Olympic medal, ever. It was a good way to return to the world, although it came at a time when our country was very much in transition: as Meyer ran a celebratory lap, the flag she was holding was not the old Oranje Blanje Blou of bygone days. Instead, she held aloft the Olympic flag. By the time the next Olympics would roll around, our athletes would be holding the new flag that we still have today.
The 1995 Rugby World Cup (RWC) 🏉
This was another big one. The first major sporting event since the country’s first democratic elections, the RWC was hosted in South Africa, so representation in the stands was high. The new flag was visible everywhere, and South Africans couldn’t stop singing “World in Union” half the time, and “Shoshaloza” the other half.
Everybody knows the outcome, so there’s no point in trying to be mysterious so we’ll just remind you of a few key moments: James Small digging deep and managing to do something that no other player of the tournament was ever able to – stop Jonah Lomu, Joel Stransky kicking the winning drop goal and Nelson Mandela being hoisted aloft by the players as a “thank you” for his commitment to a peaceful transition and uniting the country.
It didn’t stop there, of course. South Africa has gone on to win two more championships in 2007 and 2019, tying with New Zealand’s All Blacks for the most wins in World Cup history – despite not participating in the first two tournaments. Oh – not for nothing, but at the time of writing, South Africa is also the number 1 ranked team in the world.
The 1996 African Cup of Nations ⚽️
The very next year, Mzansi did it again, this time in the game of football. This was another triumphant return. Back in 1957, South Africa was disqualified from the inaugural tournament in Khartoum – once again because of apartheid policies, so it was an appearance one year shy of four decades in the making, and Bafana Bafana made the most of it.
Throughout the entire contest, South Africa conceded only a single loss to Egypt, which just so happens to be the country with the best overall record in the tournament, so that’s no big shame. The rest of the time, the players made sure the world knew we were back, all the way to the final when they beat Tunisia by two unanswered goals. Two of the team’s players – John Moshoeu and Mark Williams – tied for second place in the leading scorers list with four apiece. The 90s were a heady time for South African sport.
A whole bunch of swimmers 🏊
South African’s are not just good with ball sports – we know a thing or two about getting along in some water, and one of the first athletes to prove this was Penny Heyns, and she proved it in style at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, where she became the first – and currently only – woman in the history of the Games to win both the 100m and 200m breaststroke events. Oh, she also broke the world and Olympic records in each event. Incidentally, she was also the first South African to pick up a Gold Medal at the Games since the end of apartheid. Simply put, she could swim. 🏆
There have been other South African swimmers, of course: Ryk Neethling, Chad le Clos, Natalie du Toit, and many, many more. There are also plenty of South Africans with records in open water swimming, like Carina Bruwer. Basically, we’re a country that likes to get wet. 💦
Wait, we have rowers?!
This one came as a bit of a surprise. Most of us were at work or school when the news came through that South Africa had taken another gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. We expected to get a couple, it must be said – we had all those swimmers, after all – but this was a little different. This was in a rowing event and – no offence to any rowers reading this – the discipline had always been somewhat on the fringe of South African sport. Not anymore.
The event in question was the gloriously titled “men’s lightweight coxless four”, and the four, lightweight, coxless men in question were Sizwe Ndlovu, James Thompson, Matthew Brittain, and John Smith. It was awesome, and South Africans everywhere were brushing up on their rowing knowledge – probably starting with the definition of “coxless”. 👀
Every single time Caster Semenya laces up 😱
Spare a thought for the world’s female middle-distance runners that aren’t Caster Semenya: you work your whole life toward a single goal: run faster than anybody else. You train, you sweat, you struggle. And you improve. Sometimes slowly, sometimes by leaps and bounds, but you improve. You get faster, better, stronger. The end is in sight. You can almost taste it.
Then, right when you think you’re close to being the fastest, in walks Caster Semenya. She takes her position at the start of the race, the starting gun goes off … and you never see her again, except from behind and a long way off. Semenya is so blisteringly fast, you feel your shot at greatness slipping away. You’ve been beaten, and utterly so. 😭
Semenya is in a league of her own. In the only significant races where she came second, it was found to be because the winner had been doping. So, the gold medals went to Semenya, anyway. World Athletics tends to frown on racing with chemicals (although they don’t mind those that make you slower, it seems. More on that later.)
Here’s a quick tally of her most important medals: gold in the 800m at both the London and Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Gold in the World Championships in 2009, 2011 and 2017 (when she also took a bronze in the 1500m for good measure). Gold in both the 800m and 1500m at the Commonwealth Games in 2018. At this stage, she probably has more gold in her house than Donald Trump! And for far better reasons.
When something as disruptive as Semenya enters the fray, things are going to get fraught. An intersex woman, she has XY chromosomes and naturally elevated testosterone levels. Made to undergo sex testing after her 2009 World Championships win, she was cleared to return to the track. In 2019, however, World Athletics changed the rules: athletes like Semenya would be barred from participating in distances ranging from 400m to one mile unless they take medication to supress certain hormones. Why those distances and not others? We don’t know, but they do seem rather … specific. 😕
Nor do we know how an international body can square a decision to ban substances that improve physical performance beyond one’s natural ability with the requirement that certain athletes take medication to interrupt what is – for those athletes – their natural body function. Semenya has appealed the ruling. We have to wait and see.
Yes – there are far more examples of South African sporting excellence we can cite, but this article has to end somewhere. To vote for your favourite nominee in the category of “Favourite Personality”, all you need do is click here.