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South Africa and the Olympic Games


Olympic Collage

What is today referred to as the “Ancient Olympic Games”, was a sports festival celebrated in honour of the Greek god Zeus in the town of Olympia. As far as could be established by modern archaeologist this festival lasted from some time before 776 B.C. to 393 A.D.

During the 19th century the idea of reviving the Olympic Games was mooted by several people.   It was, though, only when the French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin arrived on the scene in the last decade of the 19th century that the movement gained real momentum.

His concept was to stage an Olympic Games every four years in different cities all over the world.   Through sport, he thought, the future leaders of the world could meet in peace and get to know and respect each other. His original idea was both elitist and sexist.   Amongst his ideas were:

  • Only amateurs could participate - If you could not afford to do sport, the chances that you had the potential to become a world leader were slim.
  • Only men could participate - As there was no opportunity for women to become political leaders in the world, there was no sense in allowing them at an Olympic Games.
  • Membership to the International Olympic Committee should only be open to invitees

De Coubertin was no democrat.   In his mind future International Olympic Committees should compose only of royalty and other extremely influential personalities. Once such a committee was established future membership should be by invitation only.  

One might criticise him today but, he was a son of his time.   When he managed to arrange a meeting of his friends and potential future members of the International Olympic Committee in 1894 at Sorbonne he received their support.

The meeting decided that the first modern Olympic Games should be, because of the emotional and historic ties, held in 1896 in the Greek city, Athens.

The first modern Olympic Games in Athens, 1896

Organising the Games at such short notice looked like an impossible task. The biggest problem was money but sponsorship by the Greek millionaire Georgios Averoff saved the day.

At the end of the day 311 athletes (all men) competed at these Games.   As athletes entered for competition as individuals and without necessarily the sanction of the sport bodies of their respective countries, it is now impossible to establish how many countries were represented.   For instance the gymnast Charles Shampoff was a Swiss national who lived in Bulgaria at the time.   Today both countries claim Shampoff as their representative!

What is known today as “South Africa” was in 1896 the two British colonies, the Cape Colony and Natal, and the two independent republics, Orange Free State and the Transvaal.  No athlete represented any of these entities in Athens.

The second modern Olympic Games in Paris, 1900

The second modern Olympic Games were awarded to Paris in honour of the founder of the movement, Pierre de Coubertin.

These Games were organised as a sub-division of an International Expo held in Paris during 1900. The Games began on 20 May 1900 and only finished five months later on 28 October 1900.  

Although Transvaal had an impressive exhibit at the expo, no athlete from the future South Africa participated at the Paris Games of 1900. Of the 1 318 athletes who participated, 12 were women.

This collection of resources was produced and edited for SAHO by Lappe Laubscher.