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South Africa’s first Olympic Gold Medal

The fourth modern Olympic Games, London, 1908.

At the International Olympic Committee meeting in July 1907 a motion that the four British colonies in Southern Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, Natal, the Orange River Colony and the Transvaal, should be allowed to participate at the Olympic Games in London under the umbrella name of “South Africa” was tabled. This motion was accepted.

It should be noted that the “Union of South Africa” was only formed three years later – on 31 May 1910.

On 3 January 1908 a national Olympic Committee for South Africa was established.   The first president was the mining magnate Henry Nourse.   In his youth Nourse was a brilliant versatile athlete.

Although time was short to organise enough funds to send a representative team to the Games in London, the South African Olympic Committee nominated a team of fifteen.   This team consisted of seven athletes, four cyclists, three tennis players and a fencer.

Despite the successes of Len Tau and Jan Mashiani at the 1904 Olympic Games no Black athlete was considered for the 1908 team.   The 1908 team for the first time represented South Africa in green with a springbok in yellow on the chest. This remained the colours for South African Olympians until 1960.

Reg Walker. Click on image to enlarge

From a South African perspective the sensation of these Games was the 19 year old Natalian Reg Walker. (Reg Walker) He was the number two South African sprinter in the team.   Eddie Duffy was the South African champion.

No less than 57 sprinters entered the 100 meters.   They were divided into 17 heats in which only the winners progressed to the semi-finals.   In the four semi-finals only the four winners progressed to the final.

Figure.2. Click on image to enlarge

Walker not only reached the final (Duffy was eliminated in the semi-finals), but won the final for South Africa’s first gold medal at an Olympic Games. (Figure. 2)

Document 1. Click on image to enlarge

Sometime after he won his gold medal a story was told that he was not originally selected and was only included after his supporters in Natal guaranteed the cost of his participation to the South African Olympic Committee.   This is another Olympic myth. (Document 1)

South Africa’s other medal was a silver medal that Charles Hefferon won in the marathon after the man who crossed the finishing line first, Dierando Pietri, was disqualified.

Hefferon was born in England and came to South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War as a member of the South African Constabulary.   At the time of the Games he worked as prison warden in Bloemfontein.   After the Games he resettled in Canada where he died in 1933.