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South Africa’s First Olympians

South Africa’s official participation in the Olympic Games began in 1908; however, the country’s involvement at the 1904 Games is a great, rarely-heard story, revealing the athletes that weren’t there to compete in the first place.

South Africa's First Olympians

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The 1904 Olympic Games

The 1904 Olympics (the third modern Olympic Games) were held in St. Louis, USA as part of the World’s Fair. For seven months, 20 million visitors from around the globe came to see exhibits from 50 countries and to watch the Olympic events that were mixed in with other attractions at the Fair.

Due to the lack of international participation in these Olympic Games (there were only 13 countries), the event organizers invited anybody at the Fair to compete.

The Athletes

One of the exhibits at the World’s Fair was a group of South Africans performing reenactments of battles from the most recent Boer War with the British Empire. Participating in the reenactment was a way for South Africans to earn money after the war that ended in 1902.

Len Tau (Taunyane) and Jan Mashiani, two of the workers in the “Boer War Spectacle” entered the marathon and became the first black participants from Africa in the Olympics.

South Africa's First Olympians
1904 Olympic Marathon participants Len Tau (left) and Jan Mashiani of the Tswana tribe of South Africa. -Jessie Tarbox Beals [Public domain]

The Marathon

The marathon started on Tuesday, August 30 at 2:30 p.m. Thirty-two athletes from four nations lined up to run the over 40 km (or close to 25 mile) race that included seven large hills.

The conditions were brutal. The summer day was hot (32° C or 90° F) and humid, and the only water stops on the route were at mile 6 and mile 12. The roads were dusty from the horses and automobiles that were clearing the way – making it difficult for the runners to breathe. Only 14 racers completed the marathon.

South Africa's First Olympians
Jessie Tarbox Beals (attributed) [Public domain]

Len Tau (#35) finished in ninth place, while Jan Mashiani (#36) came in twelfth. Legend has it that one or both of them ran barefooted and were chased off course by a dog.

Another South African, Robert “Bob” Harris, dropped out of the race.

The Boers also entered a team in the tug-of-war competition but were unsuccessful in beating an American team.

South Africa's First Olympians
From Charles Lucas, The Olympic Games 1904. St. Louis, MO: Woodward and Tiernan, 1905 -WikimediaCommons

Fun Facts

Other stories from this marathon make it one of the most interesting races in Olympic history.

The perceived winner, American Fred Lorz, had dropped out of the race after nine miles and hitched a ride to the stadium. The car broke down and Lorz jogged into the stadium making the audience think he was the winner. He confessed before receiving his medal.

Felix Carvajal, a postman from Cuba, lined up at the start with his street clothes on. Another athlete cut his pants off at the knee to make shorts for him.

Meghan McCarthy shares more in her book The Wildest Race Ever:  The Story of the 1904 Olympic Marathon.

South Africa's First Olympians

References:  International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH); Mail & Guardian

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