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Olympic Games Countdown: South Africa in the wilderness

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Chris Kempson considers how South Africa has fared in the Olympic Games

THE Republic of South Africa first entered the Games in 1904 and remained part of the Olympic movement until 1960. However, its apartheid policies saw it banned from the Games from 1964-1988, which must have been a large blow to this very enthusiastic sporting nation, now comprising around 55 million inhabitants. In the ring South Africa has acquired six gold medals, four silver and nine bronze. Athletics aside, boxing is the second largest Olympic medal haul for the South Africans.

Would South Africa have secured more medals in the Olympic boxing ring had they not been banned due to their apartheid policies? Of course, we will never know, but it is probably reasonable enough to suggest, that had they been competing between 1964- 1988 inclusive, they very well might have notched up a decent medal haul. It is very sad when a country’s political policies deny their sportsmen from competing on the biggest sporting stage in the world; but it happened, change has come about in that country and now rightly it takes its place as a member, once again, of the great Olympic movement and sporting family.

What is perhaps surprising is that no ring medals have been won since the Rome Olympics of 1960. At those Games, Daniel Bekker won silver at heavyweight, while William Meyers, took a featherweight bronze. Since then, no medal achievements have been chalked up as such. That is indeed a long time to remain in the “medal cold”.

Did the apartheid years blunt South Africa’s boxing edge, the lack of competition may have deterred potential Olympians from participating in the sport, who could they box against and indeed at what level if they could? In each of the recent Games, South Africa has struggled to get more than two or three of their boxers to triumph in the qualifying tournaments, thus giving them ever reducing chances of getting in to the medal process. Will they come again, I suspect they might, but it will probably take them a very long time to do so. The dark shadow of apartheid may still be having an impact today on the country’s amateur boxers and their chances of Olympic medal success. If this indeed is the case, it is unfortunate, but South Africa needs to keep punching, and maybe their time will come again. We shall see.

In 1920, bantamweight, Clarence Walker took a gold, South Africa’s first ring medal in the modern Games. Four years later, another bantamweight, this time, William Smith became the Olympic Champion and also the youngest at that time. In 1928 the medal run continued, although on this occasion only a bronze was netted.

In 1932 rich pickings were obtained, two golds and a bronze. Lightweight, Lawrence Stevens and light-heavyweight, David Carstens, each weighed in with a gold .Moving on to the Berlin Games of 1936, featherweight, Charles Catterall won a silver medal and the dark clouds of World War II were menacingly coming ever closer and with the war ultimately intervening, the Olympic Games were “iced” until the “London austerity” Games of 1948, where South Africa’s boxing star shone very brightly.

Lightweight, Gerald Dreyer won a gold as did light-heavyweight, George Hunter. Hunter outpointed our own representative from Derby, Don Scott, who was in the Army at that time. The South African also won the Val Barker trophy for the Games best stylist. Featherweight, Dennis Shepherd won silver, while a bronze medaL was also gained.

Success also followed in Helsinki in 1952, where light-middleweight, Theunis van Schalkwyk won silver having the misfortune in the Olympic final to meet the 1948 Olympic middleweight champion, that phenomenal Hungarian, Laszlo Papp. Three bronze medals were also secured, one by none other, then flyweight Willie Toweel, who later went on to excel in the paid ranks.

On the other side of the world in Melbourne, Australia in 1956, two bronzes were acquired,, one by heavyweight, Dan Bekker who was knocked out by the eventual American gold medallist, Pete Rademacher,

Moving back to Europe in 1960 and the Games in Rome, Bekker went one better than “Down Under” winning a silver this time, although being knocked out in ninety seconds in the final by the Italian Francesco De Piccoli. Featherweight, William Meyers took a bronze. Thus concluded the medal fortunes of the Republic of South Africa in the Modern Olympics.

A country with a chequered sporting history and pedigree for whom ring medals have disappeared in recent years, but nothing even a medal drought, usually lasts forever, so there will perhaps be hope in the future for South Africa to get back on the medal board.

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