South Africa is sending a team of 125 athletes to the Summer Games in London (27 July to 12 August, London), and the Olympic fever is starting to permeate the nation. Two weeks prior to the opening of the games, anyone searching the South African online auction site and marketplace bidorbuy.co.za for the term “olympic” would have been served a results page with over 1200 listings of a variety of Olympic-flavoured items offered for sale, from collectibles and books to stamps, toys and sports equipment.
True, some quick surveys conducted by the local media reveal that only 35% of South Africans are really excited about the games at this stage. Still, over 70% say they plan to follow the event and watch at least some of it on television: 78% of men and 68% of women. If these numbers translate into reality, it would mean that over 19 million adult South Africans will watch at least some of the London Olympic Games events on television, with cumulative TV audience over thirty days set to surpass 100 million, which is a significant reach.
There can be no doubt that the excitement will increase when the Games actually open, especially if the Olympic Team SA starts reaping medals.
The comparative lack of enthusiasm ahead of the 2012 Olympics is probably largely due to the dismal show at the 2008 Beijing Games, when South Africans brought home only one silver medal. That was the country’s worst performance since 1936.
In a bid to improve the medal count, the monetary awards for sportsmen and women who make it onto the podium at the London Olympics have been vastly increased. For the first time, coaches will also benefit from the incentive scheme.
The 2012 South African Olympic gold medallists will receive an impressive R400,000 and their coach will pocket R100,000. Silver and bronze medals are worth R200,000 and R80,000 respectively for the sportsmen and women, and R50,000 and R20,000 respectively for their coaches.
At the 2012 Games, there will be about 10,500 athletes from all over the world competing for 300 medals. South Africa will be represented in the following disciplines: aquatics, archery, athletics, badminton, boxing, canoeing, cycling, equestrian events, football (women), hockey (women), hockey (men), judo, rowing, sailing, shooting, triathlon, volleyball (beach), and weightlifting.
South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) officials say that 12 medals are a realistic target for the country.
The history of South Africa at Olympic Games
South Africa was not present at the first and the second modern Olympic Games, but it was among the handful of countries that participated in the third Olympic Games (St Louis, 1904), albeit by chance, and in spite of the fact that it was, strictly speaking, years away from becoming a country.
Since the interest for the 1904 Olympics was rather poor, the organisers invited everybody involved with the concurrent World Fair to participate. Two Africans, Len Tau and John Mashiani, who were part of the Anglo-Boer War re-enactment at the Fair, entered the Olympic marathon. The officials recorded them as Zulus (though they were probably Tswana). Both finished the marathon: Len Tau came ninth and Jan Masiani thirteenth. The two men thus became the first athletes from Africa to participate at Olympic Games.
South Africa’s first Olympic gold medal came at the 1908 London Olympic Games, when Reginald Walker finished first in the 100-metre sprint. (South Africa was allowed to participate even though it became Union of South Africa, a British dominion, only a couple of years later.)
A South African, Okey Lewis, was the winner of the longest ever Olympic event, the 1912 Stockholm cycle race. It took him 10 hours 42 minutes 39 seconds to finish the 320 long course and win the gold medal.
The first, and up to now, the only South African athlete to win a full set of medals at a single Olympic Games was Bevil Rudd. He won the 400 meters gold, the 4 x 400 meters relay silver, and the 800 metres bronze medal in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. At the same Games, the swimmer Blanche Nash became the first women to be included in the South African Olympic team.
For the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games, South Africa had a women swimmers dream-team: the relay team of Rhoda Rennie, Freddie van der Goes, Mary Bedford and Kathleen Russel won the bronze medal.
In spite of the good show in Amsterdam, only 5 out of 65 athletes who represented South Africa in the 1952 Helsinki Games were women. Still, it was the woman who made their country proud. Esther Brand won the high jump, and her gold medal was the first ever won by a South African woman at Olympic Games. A little later, swimmer Joan Harrison won another gold medal for the Team SA, in the 100 meters backstroke.
In 1956, the South African “tradition” of sending only white athletes to Olympic Games was formulated into an official policy, at the time when the rest of the world was becoming increasingly opposed to apartheid. As a result, South Africa was banned from the 1964 Olympic Games. The ban remained in force until 1992, making it the longest in modern Olympic history.
In the in five Olympic Games between 1992 and 2008, South Africa won only 19 medals: four gold, nine silver and six bonze. The swimmer Penny Heyns won two gold medals for women’s 100 metres breaststroke and women's 200 metres breaststroke in 1996 in Atlanta; Josia Thugwane won the gold medal in men’s marathon, also at the 1996 Atlanta Games; and swimmers Lyndon Ferns, Ryk Neethling, Roland Schoeman and Dorian Townsend won the 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay at the 2004 Games in Athens.
All in all, South African sportsmen and women have won a total of 70 Olympic medals: 20 gold, 24 silver and 26 bronze. Athletics, boxing, and swimming have been the top medal-producing sports for the country.
Regardless of the number of medals Team SA wins at the 2012 Olympics, it is already assured of making history: Oscar Pistorius will become the first double amputee to compete in the Games. He will run in the 4 x 400m relay with Willem de Beer, Ofentse Mogawane and Shaun de Jager.
Home away from home
Team South Africa and South Africans who go to London to show their support will enjoy a home away from home ambiance in the Ekhaya Hospitality Centre for the duration of the Olympic Games. The centre will offer to them a wide range of facilities and programmes, including wi-fi and internet connectivity, meeting rooms, a media and business centre, a business lounge, function facilities, full coverage of all sports events, a South Africa bar, and a daily cultural exhibition.
Perhaps, one day, in SA
After the successful staging of the FIFA World Cup in 2010, South Africa was widely expected to put forward one of its cities as a candidate for hosting the 2020 Olympic Games.
However, South African government decided not to participate in the bidding process, citing the need to focus the country’s attention on delivering basic services to all South Africans. So, it is now up to Istanbul (Turkey), Madrid (Spain), and Tokyo (Japan) to fight it out for the honour of hosting 2020 Games.
Will an African city host the Olympic Games in 2024? After the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, this event will have been presented on every continent except Africa. South Africa is regarded by many as the country most likely to support a winning African city bid. Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban are among the few African cities that already have some of the facilities necessary for hosting Olympic Games.