South Africa’s ‘best’ Olympics?

3 August 2012

With three gold medals just six days into London 2012, some people are wondering whether this could turn out to be South Africa’s best Olympics ever. Which raises the question of how one judges a country’s success at the Games. The answer is not straightforward. Or is it?

Cameron van der Burgh, in the 100m breaststroke, and Chad le Clos, in the 200m butterfly, are the first South African men to win individual gold medals in Olympic swimming.

The men’s fours lightweight crew of Matthew Brittain, Lawrence Ndlovu, John Smith and James Thompson also delivered a first on Thursday by becoming the first South Africans to win a rowing medal at the Olympics.

So Team South Africa 2012 has certainly hit the ground running in London, with more than a week of competition still to come. Without trying to jinx their chances – touch wood, everyone! – could they be on their way to becoming the nation’s most successful Olympic team yet?

South Africa first competed at the Games in 1904, and since that time have never had more than three individuals winning gold medals at a single Olympics. In Stockholm in 1912, the country claimed four golds, but tennis player Charles Winslow won twice, in the men’s singles and doubles. So, in this respect, Team SA’s results in 2012 are already record-equalling.

Pre-isolation, post-isolation

South Africa, because of apartheid, was banned from the Games in 1964, and only readmitted nearly three decades later, in 1992, following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1991.

Since readmission in 1992, Team SA has only once previously won three gold medals at a single Games. That happened in Atlanta in 1996, when Penny Heyns became the only woman in Olympic history to do the double of 100m and 200m gold in the breaststroke, and Josiah Thugwane won the men’s marathon.

If you take South Africa post-isolation, therefore, Team SA 2012 is already on a level with the country’s previous best performance in 1996 – if one takes number of gold medals as one’s yardstick.

And number of golds is the generally accepted measure of Olympic success – it is this, not total number of medals (counting silver and bronze), that determines a country’s ranking on the overall medals table.

Stockholm 1912

But whether one looks solely at number of gold medals, or at position on the medals table, South Africa’s greatest Olympic success, pre- or post-isolation, occurred a century ago, in Stockholm in 1912.

Apart from Charles Winslow’s two gold medals in tennis – which included a victory over his doubles partner Harold Kitson in the men’s singles – Rudolph Lewis won the road cycling gold medal, and Ken McArthur raced to victory in the marathon.

Christian Gitsham added a silver medal by finishing second behind McArthur in the marathon, while tennis player Kitson, of course, claimed a silver in the men’s singles.

With four gold and two silver medals in Stockholm, South Africa finished in seventh place on the medals table.

Back then, 28 nations took part in the Olympics, with 2 406 athletes competing, of which only 47 were women.

Most medals at a single Olympics

Taking as one’s measure total number of medals won – whether gold, silver or bronze – South Africa has twice won 10 (two less than the target set by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee for 2012).

At the Antwerp Olympics in 1920, South Africa captured three gold, four silver and three bronze medals, while in Helsinki in 1952, the country won two gold, four silver and four bronze medals.

Bevil Rudd was the star of South Africa’s team in Antwerp, winning a gold medal in the 400m, a silver in the 4x400m relay, and a bronze in the 800m.

It took until Athens in 2004 for another South African to match his feat of winning a medal of every colour in a single Olympic Games. Roland Schoeman did it with a gold medal in the 4 x 100m freestyle relay, a silver in the 100m freestyle, and a bronze in the 50m freestyle.

Looking at South Africa post-isolation, Schoeman thus single-handedly contributed half of Team SA’s best total medal haul. SA scooped five medals in Atlanta in 1996, five in Sydney in 2000, six in Athens in 2004, and one (Khotso Mokoena’s long jump silver) in Beijing in 2008.

Most successful Olympians

South Africa’s most successful Olympians – so far – are tennis player Charles Winslow and swimmer Penny Heyns. Winslow added a bronze medal to his two gold medals of 1912 at the 1920 Antwerp Games in the men’s singles, while Heyns followed up her double of 1996 with a bronze medal in the 100m breaststroke at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

In Helsinki in 1952, South Africa’s medal haul was boosted by the first ever individual gold medals won by South African women. Joan Harrison took victory in the 100m backstroke, while Esther Brand won the high jump.

However, the Helsinki team was one gold medal shy of matching the country’s achievements in Antwerp in 1920.

South Africa placed 11th on the medals table in Antwerp, where 2 626 athletes took part in the Games, while they finished 12th in Helsinki. A total of 4 955 athletes competed in Helsinki, of which only 519 were women.

Most successful sport – gold medals

Before South Africa was banned from the Olympic Games just before the 1964 Olympic Games, the country’s most successful sport was boxing. The country’s pugilists had won 19 medals in 11 Games, producing six champions, four silver medal winners and nine bronze medallists.

Since readmission, however, South African boxers have not won a single medal, and have only won two individual bouts so far – one of which took place on Sunday, the same day Cameron van der Burgh became Olympic 100 metres breaststroke champion.

In Sydney in 2000, Danie Venter beat Syria’s Ihab al-Youssef 12-9 in the light-heavyweight category before losing to India’s Gurcharan Singh in the his next bout. And in London on Sunday, welterweight Siphiwe Lusizi defeated Iran’s Ahmed Ahmed 17-13. His next fight, against Venezuela’s Gabriel Maestre Perez, takes place later on Friday.

Now, with the two gold medals won in London, South African swimming has drawn level with boxing and athletics for the greatest number of gold medals won, with six.

Five of the country’s swimming medals have come since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Penny Heyns won twice that year, the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay won in Athens in 2004, and Cameron van der Burgh and Chad le Clos have now added to the tally in London. The only other previous victory had been Joan Harrison’s backstroke win in Helsinki in 1952.

Most successful sport – total medals

Taking total number of medals as the yardstick, athletics tops the list as South Africa’s most successful Olympic sport, with six gold, 11 silver and six bronze medals.

Only once has South Africa failed to win a medal at the Olympic Games. That happened the very first time the country took part, in Saint Louis in 1904, when only 651 athletes participated. Not more than 60 of them came from outside of North America.

The country has twice won only a single medal, in 1936 in Berlin, where featherweight boxer Charles Catterall won a silver medal, and in 2008 in Beijing, where Khotso Mokoena claimed silver in the long jump.

(gold, silver, bronze, total)

  • 1904 St. Louis 0 0 0 0
  • 1908 London 1 1 0 2
  • 1912 Stockholm 4 2 0 6
  • 1920 Antwerp 3 4 3 10
  • 1924 Paris 1 1 1 3
  • 1928 Amsterdam 1 0 2 3
  • 1932 Los Angeles 2 0 3 5
  • 1936 Berlin 0 1 0 1
  • 1948 London 2 1 1 4
  • 1952 Helsinki 2 4 4 10
  • 1956 Melbourne 0 0 4 4
  • 1960 Rome 0 1 2 3
  • 1992 Barcelona 0 2 0 2
  • 1996 Atlanta 3 1 1 5
  • 2000 Sydney 0 2 3 5
  • 2004 Athens 1 3 2 6
  • 2008 Beijing 0 1 0 1
  • 2012 London 3 0 0 3

    Total 23 24 26 73

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