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South Africa’s first Olympians

The third modern Olympic Games, St Louis, USA

The third Olympic Games was hosted by the USA as a part of what was called a “World’s Fair”.   The various Olympic events were slotted in a pretty disorganised way between other attractions at the Fair.   The result was that the first Olympic event took place on 1 July 1904 and the last only on 23 November 1904.

The international participation was a disappointment. Athletes from only thirteen countries entered.   Of the 625 athletes, only eight were women.

Due to lack of foreign interest, the organisers invited everybody at the “World’s Fair” to participate.

One of the events at the Fair was an “Anglo-Boer War Historical Libretto”.   This revue re-enacted scenes from the Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902). The highlight was the surrender of the Boer general Piet Cronje to Lord Roberts at Paardeberg.  As one of the major attractions Cronje played himself in the revue.

Two of the workers at this show were Len Tau and John Mashiani.   These two had been with General Piet Cronje for a long time. As a matter of fact, they were with him when he surrendered at Paardeberg during the Anglo Boer War.

Figure.1. Click on image to enlarge

With General Cronje and almost 5 000 Boer soldiers they were taken Prisoner of War and deported to St Helena. (Figure. 1) At the end of the war Tau and Mashiani were re-united with Cronje and went with him when he left South Africa for the United States of America.

In St Louis they entered the Olympic marathon.   Here they were recorded as Lentauw and Yamasani.   If seems as if none of them were able to write. If this was indeed the case, they might have given their names only verbally when they entered. The names Lentauw and Yamasani is a likely way an America official could have thought to have heard the names.  

They were also recorded as Zulus.   This obviously was a wild guess from an American official.   Because they were black and from Africa he assumed that they were from the Zulu nation.

Amongst these people the surnames Lentauw and Yamasani are unknown.   It was only when an old newspaper clipping was discovered that sports historians discovered the truth. In this cutting Len Tau told a journalist that back home in South Africa he was called “a lion”.   The Tswana word for lion is tau.

Taking in account that Piet Cronje came from the North West Province and the indigenous people in this area are mostly from the Tswana nation, it all adds up.

Len Tau, who ran barefoot, finished ninth and Jan Masiani thirteenth in the marathon.   They were not only South Africa’s first Olympians, but also the first athletes from Africa to participate at an Olympic Games.

There is one more story to be told about Len Tau.   According to tradition he was chased off course by a stray dog. The story goes that he lost up to six minutes in the process.   Another version is that both he and Jan Mashiani were at one stage chased by a dog.

This story about the dog is probably only an Olympic myth, but it remains to good a story to just ignore.

What is true though, is that two black South Africans who remained true to their white friend, Piet Cronje, wrote a chapter in Olympic history when they ran in the marathon in St Louis.