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Olympiads with the right stuff

LEN Tau and Jan Mashiani were South Africa’s first Olympians, running the Olympic Marathon in the 1904 Olympic Games in the US.

LEN Tau and Jan Mashiani were South Africa’s first Olympians, running the Olympic Marathon in the 1904 Olympic Games in the US.

Published Jul 31, 2021


IT WAS sheer chance that South Africans Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani competed in the Olympic Marathon in the third Olympic Games held in 1904 ‒ making history as the first South Africans to compete in the Games.

The first Olympic Games was held in Athens, Greece, in 1896 with 311 athletes, all of whom were men, while the second Games was in Paris in 1900. No South Africans took part in these two Games.

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In 1904, the third Games was held in St Louis, in the US, and as the organisers had a poor response from athletes, with only 13 countries entering, the Olympic events were slotted into the programme of the “World Fair” which was being held at the same time.

Of the 625 athletes who entered, eight were women, with the first Olympic events starting on July 1 and taking place up until November 23, 1904.

Because of the lack of participation, World Fair organisers sent out an invitation to everyone at the Fair to participate in the Olympic Games.

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As it so happened, taking place at the Fair was a revue enacting scenes from the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) called the Anglo-Boer War Historical Libretto, which highlighted the surrender of Boer general Piet Cronje at Paardeberg.

As one of the major attractions, Cronje played himself in the revue while two of his former soldiers, Len Taunyane (recorded as Tau in many historical records) and Jan (John) Mashiani were working with him at the revue.

The pair were also with Cronje at the Paardeberg surrender and at the end of the war, they were re-united with their general, accompanying him when he left South Africa and travelling to the US.

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Taunyane and Mashiani decided to compete in the Olympic Marathon, with their names being recorded as Lentauw and Yamasani. History records have speculated that the errors in their names came about because it was likely the two were unable to write and gave their names verbally, while the US official recording their names, would have never heard such names and had written them down incorrectly.

They were also recorded as being Zulus, when in fact it was more likely that they were Tswana.

Tau finished 9th, while Mashiani took 13th place. There was also an urban legend among Olympic runners that a dog had chased Tau, costing him six minutes in the marathon, and over time that legendary tale was expanded to both men being chased. There has never been any proof of this story.

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Their participation as South Africa’s first Olympians, and in fact Africa’s first Olympians, came to light when an old newspaper cutting, featuring the marathon surfaced. In the story, Tau told a journalist that back home, he was called “Lion”. (Tau is lion in Tswana).

The first gold medal for South Africa was at the 1908 Olympic Games in London when Reggie Walker, who was a bank clerk from Durban, won a spectacular 100m race.

According to some, he had struggled to get the funds together to make the trip to London until a sports journalist took up a collection to pay for Walker’s travel expenses, but this has never been proven.

Even though he was not expected to make a great showing at the Olympics, Walker won the 100m in 10.8 seconds, about half a metre ahead of record holder American athlete, James Rector.

In achieving this feat, he took the record as the youngest ever winner of the Olympic 100 metres at an age of 19 years and 128 days. It was also the first time a country other than the US had taken the gold medal for the 100m sprint.

Walker stayed in London, turning professional in 1910 and making him ineligible for the 1912 Olympic Games.

During World War I, Walker served with the 7th Infantry in German South Africa, before joining with South African Expeditionary Forces in 1917, where he served in France. He was shot and wounded in the head, recovered and was discharged from the army in 1919. He later worked as a clerk in Kenya, before returning to South Africa.

The fifth Olympic Games in 1912 in Stockholm proved to be one of the most rewarding for South African athletes, an all-men team of 21.

Tennis players Harry Kitson and Charles Winslow won the doubles while Winslow defeated Kinslow in the men’s final ‒ giving them two gold medals and one silver.

A few days later, Rudolph “Okey” Lewis won the cycling road race. According to historical reports, he started second in the starting line, passing the only rider in front of him. Lewis stayed out front for the rest of the race, having no idea of his position in relation to other riders. Only once the race was completed was it confirmed that Lewis had the fastest time.

But going down in history as one of the most memorable events of the 1912 Games was the Olympic Marathon which involved a titanic race between two South African runners, Ken MacArthur and Chris Gitsham. When Gitsham stopped for a drink, Ken MacArthur took his chance and won the race in 2.36.54 with Gitsham coming in less than a second behind.

The first South African woman to represent South Africa at the Olympics was swimmer Barbara Nash in the 1920 Games in Antwerp. At that time many Olympians from the previous 1912 Games had been killed in World War I, with many others dying in the Spanish Flu pandemic after the war.

The 1920 Games brought a new generation of athletes to compete, especially female athletes, into an arena which had previously been dominated by men from privileged backgrounds.

Sources: SA History Online and Olympedia, OneKMore and Wikipedia.

The Independent on Saturday

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