South Africa’s 2008 sports highlights

24 December 2008

After looking back at the top South African sporting performances, achievements, and results of the year that was 2008, two South African athletes stand out above all others: Natalie du Toit and Trevor Immelman.

Du Toit, an inspirational paraplegic swimming star whose left leg was amputated just below the knee after a motorcycling accident in 2001, made history when she qualified for the Beijing Olympic Games in the open water swimming event. She booked her place by finishing fourth in the 10-kilometre race at the World Open Water Swimming Championships in Seville.

Although her swim didn’t go as well as she would have liked – she finished 16th – Du Toit’s participation, along with that of Polish table tennis player Natalia Partyka (whose right arm ends just below the elbow, but who plays left-handed), was the first by an amputee in the Olympics in over a century.

Flag bearer

In Beijing, she became the first disabled person to the Olympic flag of her country. She later became the first person to carry her country’s flag at both the Olympics and Paralympics.

Du Toit proved to be one of the outstanding athletes of the Paralympics, winning five gold medals, to lead South Africa’s challenge.

She was also awarded the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award, which is presented at every Paralympic Games to one male and one female who best exemplifies the spirit of the Games and inspires and excites the world.

In November, Du Toit received the International Association for Human Values (IAHV) Youth Leadership Award at the European Parliament in Brussels. The prestigious honour recognises young leaders with an astonishing track record of performance and/or social responsibility.

Immelman’s tumour

Golfer Trevor Immelman enjoyed a strong finish to 2007 when he won the Nedbank Golf Challenge. Shortly afterwards, competing in the SAA Open at Pearl Valley, he was forced to pull out of the tournament after he struggled with his breathing and experienced pain around his ribcage. Tests revealed a tumour about the size of a golf ball.

Immelman had the tumour removed; it was, thankfully, benign, but it sidelined him for some time. As a result of this, the 2006 PGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year struggled with his form.

In the eight PGA Tour events preceding the year’s first major, the US Masters, Immelman failed to make the cut four times. His best finish was a tie for 17th. His next best result was a tie for 40th in the World Golf Championships-CA Championship. In the last tournament before the Masters, the Shell Houston Open, he missed the cut.

Outplayed the best

Somehow, however, over the course of four wonderful days it all came together for the South African star as outplayed the best players in the world to capture the Masters title at Augusta, the only permanent home to a major event.

Immelman took the first round lead with Johannesburg-born Justin Rose – the man he had out-duelled for the Nedbank Challenge title, with a four-under-par 68.

He moved into the sole lead after two rounds on eight-under-par 136 after a second successive 68. Only Steve Flesch with a five-under 67 bettered Immelman’s second round effort, while Brandt Snedeker matched it to trail by just one shot.

Tiger Woods’ threat

Immelman maintained his challenge in the third round, posting a 69, which was bettered by only three players. Ominously, one of those players was world number one Tiger Woods, a four-time winner of the Masters, who was expected to make a final round charge.

Immelman’s lead was two shots with one round to play.

Woods managed to make up three shots by posting a 72 to the South African’s 75 over the last 18 holes, and while he moved up to take second place, he still finished three shots behind Immelman’s final total of eight-under-par 280.

His victory made him only the second South African to win the prestigious Masters title, emulating his idol, Gary Player, who had previously won the event in 1961, 1974, and 1978.

The rest of the year, Immelman’s result were far from outstanding – he admitted he had been ill-prepared for the demands that came with winning the Masters – but for four glorious days he ruled the world of golf at Augusta.

The year 2008 was a big one on the world’s sporting calendar with Beijing garnering the spotlight as it hosted the Olympic Games and the Paralympics. The two events contrasted sharply in terms of South African success.

Olympic Games

For SA sports’ fans, the Olympics unfolded with a sense of disbelief as medal hopeful after medal hopeful came up short of the mark. The Games began on 8 August and it took until 18 August for relief to be provided as South Africa faced the ignominy of finishing the Olympics without a medal.

Long jumper Khotso Mokoena finally ended the drought by capturing silver with a best leap of 8.24 metres. Sadly for the majority of South Africans, his medal winning performance was greeted by relief more than by joy, but it was a highlight nonetheless.

Earlier in the year he had demonstrated his ability to beat the best when he won the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Valencia, Spain.


The SA swimming team deserves honourable mention despite not being able to win a single medal. They established numerous African and South African records, but the rate at which world records were broken and improved upon in the pool was unprecedented in the history of the sport.

Later in the year, sprint ace Roland Schoeman went on to set a world record in the short course 50 metres freestyle. It was subsequently broken by France’s Amaury Leveaux.

Breaststroke world record holder

Cameron van der Burgh, however, set two short course world records in the breaststroke and they remained not only unbroken but unchallenged. He became the first swimmer to crack 26 seconds for the 50 metres and 57 seconds for the 100 metres.

Van der Burgh dominance of the FINA/Arena Swimming World Cup, during which he set the world records, was reflected in his winning of the overall title.

Kathryn Meaklim also excelled by finishing third in the women’s standings; she won 18 races and added six silver medals and two bronzes to finish with more medals than any other woman.

But back to Beijing.

Paralympic team

After the disappointment of the Olympics, South African sports’ fans were disillusioned and, generally, lowered their hopes about what the Paralympic team might achieve. They need not have worried as the South African team shone, providing the Games with some of its outstanding stars.

Joining Natalie du Toit at the forefront of South Africa’s gold medal winning achievements was “The Blade Runner”, Oscar Pistorius, who completed the triple of the 100 metres, 200m, and 400m in the men’s T44 class.

Hilton Langenhoven also claimed three titles – in the long jump, 200 metres, and pentathlon. Fanie van der Merwe did the 100/200 double in the men’s T37 class, while Ilse Hayes won the women’s F13 long jump.

Equestrian wins

Phillipa Johnson won two gold medals in equestrian events and Ernst van Dyk captured gold in the men’s hand cycling individual road race.

Besides Natalie du Toit, three other swimmers won gold in the swimming pool: Shireen Sapiro in the women’s S10 100 metres backstroke, Kevin Paul in the men’s 100m breaststroke SB9, and Charl Bouwer in the men’s 400m freestyle S13.

The South African team was outstanding, capturing 21 gold, three silver and six bronze medals to finish sixth in the final medal standings. And as much as their achievements impressed, their collective attitude exceeded even those achievements.

Paralympic Team SA was clearly a happy collection of athletes and the joy they exhibited while competing in Beijing was contagious. It made the Rainbow Nation very proud while, at the same time, restoring the faith of the country’s fans in its athletes.


In 2007 the Springboks were crowned the Rugby World Cup winners. Not surprisingly, 2008 failed to live up to the standards set the year before, but there were some exceptional results along the way.

Playing under the first black coach in Springbok history, Peter de Villiers, the Boks achieved their first ever win over the All Blacks in Dunedin – by 30 points to 28 – to bring to an end a five-year unbeaten run on home soil for the New Zealanders.

Later in the year they recorded record victories over three of the rugby world’s leading rugby powers. At Ellis Park, the Springboks crushed Argentina 63-9. At the same venue, they drilled Australia 53-8. Then, on their end of year tour of the United Kingdom, they handed England their worst ever loss at Twickenham, triumphing 42-6.

100 test caps

On an individual level, Percy Montgomery made history by becoming the first South African to win 100 test caps. He retired with 102 caps to his name and a number of important SA records, including the most points (893) and the most points in a test (35 versus Namibia).

The South African Sevens team finished second in the 2007/08 IRB Sevens World Series behind a dominant New Zealand team. Their season included ending the Kiwis’ 47-match unbeaten run in the final of the Adelaide Sevens.

The best was yet to come when, at the end of the year, in the first two events of the 2008/09 season, Paul Treu’s charges went unbeaten as they captured the Dubai Sevens and then, for the first time, the George Sevens. The victory on home soil was especially sweet for the team and the loyal George fans.

SA golf victories

South African golfers continued to excel on tours around the world. Apart from Trevor Immelman’s victory in the US Masters, a good number of other player won tournaments in other parts of the world. They included:

  • Richard Sterne, in the co-sanctioned European and Sunshine Tours’ Joburg Open, Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and South African Open
  • Hennie Otto, in the European Tour’s Italian Open
  • Ernie Els, in the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic
  • Retief Goosen in the Asian Tour’s Johor Open
  • Charl Schwartzel in the European Tour’s Madrid Masters
  • Tim Clark in the Australian PGA’s Australian Open
  • Bafana Bafana

    On the football front, Bafana Bafana suffered a slump following the shock resignation of coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. His replacement Joel Santana took over slap bang in the middle of African Cup of Nations qualifying and when South Africa failed to earn a place for the 2010 competition in Angola it came as little surprise.

    By the end of the year, however, it appeared as if Bafana might have started to turn the corner under Santana. They won four matches in succession – beating Malawi 3-0, Equatorial Guinea 1-0, Ghana 2-1, Cameroon 3-2 – to provide the team’s fans with reason to be optimistic ahead of the 2009 Confederations Cup, which South Africa will host in June.

    SA cricket team shines

    The South African cricket team enjoyed a very good year in 2008. The series highlight was a victory over England in England, while the Proteas’ first test win over Australia in Perth in December was a record-breaking achievement that many feel was SA’s best ever test result.

    Requiring 414 for victory, Graeme Smith and company made it look easy. He and AB de Villiers scored centuries, while Jacques Kallis and JP Duminy weighed-in with fifties to take South Africa to a six-wicket victory. It was the second highest successful run chase in test history.

    Besides the series win in England, there was a continuous roll of success for South Africa during 2008. After beating Pakistan in Pakistan towards the end of 2007, there were test series wins over the West Indies (2-1), Bangladesh in Bangladesh (2-0), and Bangladesh in SA (2-0).

    A three-test series against India in India finished in a 1-1 draw only after the hosts had prepared a third test pitch in Kanpur that drew an official warning from the International Cricket Council (ICC) because it was substandard. It helped the Indians level the series in three days as their spinners profited from a surface that resulted in deliveries keeping low and kicking.

    By comparison, later in the year, world number one Australia lost their four-test series in India 2-0, with the Indians’ victories coming by 320 runs and 172 runs.

    Shaun Pollock retires

    At the beginning of the year, Shaun Pollock retired after the tour by the West Indies. He completed his test career with 3 781 runs and 421 wickets, the most wickets ever by a South African and the eighth most in the history of cricket. Pollock also scored 3 519 runs and claimed 393 wickets in one-day internationals.

    Highly regarded as both a cricketer and a person, in May, Pollock was voted onto the MCC World Cricket Committee, a prestigious group of 18 former cricketers, whose goal it is to safeguard the values of cricket, including aspects relating to the laws or spirit of the game.

    Fast bowler Dale Steyn’s exceptional achievements were recognised by the ICC when he was named Test Player of the Year. In 14 tests, he captured 86 wickets at an average of 18.10 – 28 wickets more than the next highest wicket taker, Brett Lee of Australia.

    Surfing stars

    South African surfers made their mark and it was the older generation which stood out most. Team South Africa won the ISA World Masters Surfing Championships in Peru, with individual gold medals going to Heather Clark (Masters Women), Marc Wright (Kahunas) and Chris Knutsen (Grand Kahunas).

    Matthew Moir successfully defended his longboard title at the ISA World Surfing Games in Portugal, while Travis Logie made it all the way to the final of the Mr Price Pro in Durban before he was stopped by Australia’s Chris Davidson.

    Four South Africans, after good years in 2008, have qualified to compete on the prestigious ASP World Tour in 2009: David Weare, Greg Emslie and Jordy Smith will be part of the men’s tour, while Rosy Hodge will take part on the women’s tour.

    Motocross world champion

    Tyla Rattray became the third South African to win a motocross world title when he clinched the MX2 title in September at the Italian Grand Prix in Faenza. Previously Greg Albertyn and Grant Langston had won world titles.

    During 2008, Rattray recorded 13 podium finishes out of a possible 15 and also won four grands prix.

    Downhill MTB world champ

    Greg Minnaar won the Mountain Bike World Cup downhill title for the third time in 2008, following on previous titles in 2001 and 2005.

    He won three times on the seven-stop series, taking victories at Fort William, Mont Saint Anne and Canberra.

    On the boxing front, Cassius Baloyi made history when he beat Mzonka Fana on points to win the IBF junior-lightweight title. It was his sixth world title, a feat unmatched by any other South African boxer.

    International Boxing Hall of Famer

    Brian Mitchell was never a six-time world champion, but then he never needed to be as he retired as an undefeated world champion. His brilliance was recognised early in December when he was elected to enter the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

    Mitchell’s career record 46 wins, one loss and two draws. He successfully defended his WBA junior lightweight title 12 times and also won the IBF title. He was a world champion from 1986 to 1991.

    Masters squash

    South Africa’s Masters Squash team, as they have many times previously, proved themselves to be a world power at the Eighth World Masters Squash Championships in Christchurch, New Zealand.

    Trevor Wilkinson won the men’s 45-49 title, Michael Bester topped the 55-59 age group, and John Irving won the 75-plus category. Pierre Roodt was runner-up in the 50-54 category.

    Jean Grainger won the women’s 65-69 title, beating fellow South African Antoinette Morris 9-0, 9-3, 9-1 to win the title, while Averil Heath won the 70-plus category.

    Sonia Pinter was runner-up in the 40-44 age group after a tight five-game battle against Australia’s Sarah Nelson and Lisa O’Grady finished second in the 50-54 age group.

    Surf-skiing superpower

    South Africa also proved itself the strongest surf-skiiing nation in the world when SA paddlers claimed the top five places in the men’s event at the Durban Surf Ski World Cup.

    Hank McGregor won the men’s title for the second time, while Alexa Cole won the women’s title as SA claimed four of the top five women’s places.

    Also on the water, South Africa’s canoe marathon competitors showed their mettle at the World Championships in the Czech Republic where Ant Stott and Cam Schoeman won the men’s gold.

    Just a day before capturing the world title, Stott had finished third in the individual race.

    Using SAinfo material

    Would you like to use this article in your publication
    or on your website?
    See: Using SAinfo material