19 July 2012
How much do you know about South Africa’s history at the Olympics? When was the country’s best performance? Who are SA’s top Olympians? Catch up on the records and the trivia in the second of three articles covering the 18 Olympic Games the country has competed in.
Berlin was the venue for the 1936 Olympic Games. With Adolf Hitler looking on, and exploiting the event for propaganda purposes, Germany topped the medal standings, capturing 33 golds and 89 medals in total. The USA, with 24 golds and 56 medals, finished second, with Hungary in third place.
South Africa won only a single medal, with boxer Charles Catterall taking silver in the featherweight class after losing to Oscar Casanovas of Argentina in the final.
Another boxer, Robey Leibbrandt, competed in the light-heavyweight class and won through to the semi-finals after defeating the Czechoslavakian Frantisek Havelka in the quarterfinals, but he had broken his right hand in the second round of the contest.
Despite the handicap and the pain he was in, Leibbrandt refused to give up and took on Frenchman Roger Michelot in the semi-finals, with the use of only his left hand.
After a hugely gutsy performance, it appeared to the crowd and the media that Leibbrandt had won through to the final, but in a controversial decision, in a competition dogged by them, Michelot was declared the winner on points. The Frenchman went on to easily win the gold medal, defeating Germany’s Richard Vogt on points. Doctors, meanwhile, barred Leibbrandt from contesting the bout for the bronze medal.
Leibbrandt, meanwhile, was clearly impressed by what he saw in Berlin and was thus courted the by Nazis. He was among a group of athletes chosen to meet Adolf Hitler and came away very impressed.
In 1938 he returned to Berlin to study at the Reich Academy for Gymnastics and when World War Two broke out, he joined the German Army and was trained as a paratrooper.
He later returned to South Africa, dropped off the coast by a submarine, to lead Operation Weissdorn, a plan to overthrow the government of General Jan Smuts.
It didn’t succeed and he was captured and sentenced to death in 1943. This was later commuted to a life sentence, and in 1948 Liebbrandt was released from prison in an amnesty of war offenders.
Because of the Second World War, there was a 12-year break before the Olympics were next held in 1948 in London.
South Africa’s boxers delivered the goods once more, landing two gold medals.
Gerald Dreyer annexed the lightweight title, defeating Belgian Joseph Vissers in the final. Later that year, Dreyer began a successful professional career, competing mostly in New York City. He won 41 times, lost eight fights, and drew twice, with 23 knockouts.
George Hunter lifted the light-heavyweight title. He also received the Val Barker Trophy for the Outstanding Boxer of the Games. Among the men to follow in his footsteps are Cuban legend Teofilo Stevenson and American star Roy Jones junior.
Dennis Shepherd won silver in the featherwight division, losing to Italy’s Ernesto Formenti in the final, and John Arthur claimed bronze in the heavyweight class.
The two gold medals, one silver and one bronze made South Africa the most successful boxing nation at the 1948 Olympics. It was also the sum total of the Olympic team’s efforts.
South Africa finished in 18th place on the medal table. The USA, with 38 golds and 84 medals in total, claimed top spot ahead of Sweden and France.
The 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games were very successful for the country as it won 10 medals, made up of two gold, four silver and four bronze medals.
In a break from established tradition, two women won the nation’s only gold medals. Esther Brand, in the high jump, and Joan Harrison, in the 100 metres backstroke, became the first South African women to be crowned Olympic champions. Harrison was also the first South African swimmer to win a gold medal.
Thirty years later, Harrison was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, the second South African to receive the honour after Karen Muir, who was inducted in 1980.
Daphne Hasenjager placed second in the women’s 100 metres, while boxer Theunis van Schalkwyk was a silver medallist in the light-middleweight division.
Cyclists George Estman, Robert Fowler, Thomas Shardelow and Alfred Swift teamed up to lift silver in the men’s 4 000 metres pursuit, while Raymond Robinson and Shardelow also won silver in the 2 000 metres tandem.
Boxer Willie Toweel, a member of the famous Toweel family, won bronze in the flyweight division. As a professional, he went on to a record of 46 wins, six losses and two draws with 23 knockouts.
Further bronze medals in boxing came from featherweight Leonard Leisching and heavyweight Andries Nieman.
Raymond Robinson, who had finished second in the tandem, added a bronze medal in the 1 000 metres individual time trial.
South Africa placed eighth on the boxing medal table, although the country’s total of four medals was the fourth highest.
Overall, the team ended 12th on the medal table. The Soviet Union pushed the USA hard for first place, but the Americans claimed the honours again, with 40 golds and 76 medals to the Soviet team’s 22 golds and 71 medals.
The Olympic Games moved to the southern hemisphere for the first time in their history in 1956, with Melbourne, Australia, the host city.
Daan Bekker and Henry Loubscher continued South Africa’s fine Olympic boxing record, with bronze medals in the heavyweight and light-welterweight divisions respectively.
Cycling star Alfred Swift, competing in the second of the three Olympics Games that he would attend, finished third in the 1 000 metres time trial, while the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay team of Moira Abernathy, Jeanette Myburgh, Nathalie Myburgh and Susan Roberts claimed bronze.
South Africa finished a lowly 33rd on the medal table. At the top, the Soviet Union claimed first place ahead of the United States and Australia. The Soviets produced 37 champions and won 98 medals in all, while the Americans had 32 champions and won 74 medals in total.
Rome, in Italy, hosted the 1960 Olympics, which were to prove South Africa’s last for another 32 years.
Boxer Daan Bekker followed up on his bronze medal of four years earlier in Melbourne with a silver medal this time around.
Malcolm Spence won a bronze medal in the 400 metres and William Meyers claimed a bronze in the featherweight boxing division. Spence’s medal would be the last South African Olympic medal won for 32 years, while the Rome Olympics are the last Games in which South Africa won a boxing medal.
South Africa finished in 28th place on the medal table. The Soviet Union repeated as the top team, winning 43 gold medals and 103 medals in total. The USA, in second, won 34 gold medals and 71 medals overall.
South Africa banned from the Olympics
In 1964, on 18 August, less than two months before the start of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced in Lausanne that South Africa had failed to meet an ultimatum to comply with its demand to condemn apartheid by 16 August.
As a result, it withdrew South Africa’s invitation to the Tokyo Games and said the decision could be overturned only when South Africa renounced racial discrimination in sport and opposed the ban in the country on competition between black and white athletes.
South Africa had announced in June that there would be seven black athletes in its Olympic team of 62, but that did not go far enough in the eyes of the IOC.
Last week, in his farewell address to the country’s Olympic and Paralympic teams ahead of their departure for London, South African President Jacob Zuma said the Olympic movement “stood with us at every turn of the struggle for freedom and liberation, stating boldly and unapologetically, that there could be no normal sport in an abnormal society.
“The international isolation of racist South African teams and the boycott of touring South African teams contributed immensely to mobilising the world against apartheid South Africa,” Zuma said.
On 10 July 1991, with South Africa heading inexorably towards democracy – Nelson Mandela had been released from prison after 27 years on 11 February 1990 – the International Olympic Committee announced South Africa’s re-admission to the Olympics.
At Barcelona in 1992, South Africa took its place once more at the biggest multi-code sporting event of them all.
Would you like to use this article in your publication or on your website? See: Using SAinfo material