Standing on the first, second or third step of a podium, about to receive a precious metal medal around the neck and potentially a crown of laurel leaves must be one of the greatest feelings in the world.
It’s one that 86 South Africans have experienced since the country first began competing at the modern Olympic games. It’s a spectacle of athletic endeavour which ignites – and unites – people behind their nation’s flag.
Way back in 1904, the first participants were veterans of the Anglo-Boer war who had been exiled to St Helena – General Piet Cronje, Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani who all participated in the men’s marathon. Until Josiah Thugwane came out of virtually nowhere to win an unexpected gold at the country’s first post-apartheid Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, upon readmission in 1996. Cool as a cucumber in his shades, Thugwane ran around that steamy Atlanta track waving and blowing kisses to the crowd! At home, South Africans lost their minds in front of their television sets …
In total 26 golds, 31 silvers and 29 bronze medals make up the tally of South African success at the Olympics since first participating in 1904. Athletics takes the lion’s share with 28 (9, 13 and six) to swimming’s 18 – six each across gold, silver and bronze.
The names of the Olympians will remain etched in local memory for their heroics. Men and women such as Chad le Clos, Khotso Mokoena, Wayde van Niekerk, Penny Heyns, Ryk Neethling, Josiah Thugwane, Caster Semenya, Luvo Manyonga … the list goes on. Who can forget Ferns, Townsend, Neethling and Schoeman shocking the swimming world with their gold in the men’s 4 x 100m freestyle relay in Athens in 2004? Or the men’s lightweight four rowing team in Britain in 2012 – Ndlovu, Brittain, Smith and Thompson – taking gold very much against the odds.
The Olympics always delivers drama. The tales of the sacrifices athletes make to rise to the top of their field makes for stirring stuff. The long hours of preparation, the dedication and devotion required, the single minded pursuit … Many come up short and the suffering of those who only make the semi- or quarter-finals of an event are plain to see. But even just to be part of something which is so massive, played out on the world stage in the glare of hundreds of cameras is an achievement.
As we sit at home watching the action from Japan from our laptops, TV and mobile screens we should all take heart that sometimes near insurmountable odds can be overcome. That putting one foot in front of the other and having faith and believing in ourselves – as Thugwane, Le Clos et al demonstrated – success can be attained, regardless of how big or small the goal.