1959-2019: SA sport stars who shone brightly
Archie Henderson’s pick of highs (and lows)
When Gary was great
Over a period of 19 years, Gary Player was one of the best golfers in the world.
In 1959, at the age of 23, he won the British Open, the first of his nine major titles. He would win it again in 1965 and 1974. His last major victory was at Augusta in 1978, at the age of 42. It was his third win at the fabled American venue.
His achievements remain the greatest individual performance by an SA sportsman, but his legacy will be mixed: his record can’t obscure the apartheid apologias of his past.
The Demo Tour
For many rugby fans, the 1969/1970 Springbok rugby tour of Britain was the antithesis of a sporting highlight at the time. Yet, with almost 50 years of hindsight, it presaged the end of apartheid sport.
Peter Hain, today a lord of the realm, a former British cabinet minister and respected member of the upper classes, was a young man when he led demonstrations against the tour that took anti-apartheid activism to a higher level, and did even more than cricket’s Basil D’Oliveira affair a year before to highlight the iniquities of playing against SA. It was the first step to a Bok team led by a black man.
A world champion
The biggest prize in sport is still the heavyweight title of the world, and only one South African has held it, albeit briefly.
In many ways, Gerrie Coetzee was an unlikely world champion: soft spoken with a high-pitched voice, a dodgy right hand (Seer Handjies — little sore hands, opponent Kallie Knoetze called him) and a suspect defence.
In the post-Muhammad Ali era of heavyweight boxing, Coetzee won the world title on his third attempt, on September 23 1983, beating American Michael Dokes with a 10th-round knockout in the US. But he lost it a year later to Greg Page at Sun City.
World Cup glory
Just three years after their return from isolation, and the humiliation of losing to the All Blacks and Wallabies on home soil, the Springbok rugby team achieved what will probably remain SA’s finest sporting achievement.
The 15-12 defeat of New Zealand on a June afternoon at Ellis Park in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final briefly united a nation, with dancing in the streets from Sandton to Soweto. It also provided an iconic image of Nelson Mandela, wearing a Bok jersey, handing the cup to Francois Pienaar. The euphoria, however, quickly disappeared in a fractious debate over transformation.
Soweto miracle of ’96
It’s hard to believe today: SA 3, Cameroon 0; SA 3, Ghana 0; and, finally, SA 2, Tunisia 0. Those were among the victories over three of Africa’s football powerhouses on the way to Bafana Bafana’s triumph in the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations.
OK, it helped that Nigeria did not arrive, on orders — given in a fit of pique — by dictator Sani Abacha, who wanted to spite Mandela.
Led by Neil Tovey, a Bafana team, who are still household names, won the final against Tunisia at Soweto’s Soccer City — a football height never scaled again.
Cruelty on Caster
Seldom has an athlete been as persecuted, her dignity violated or as betrayed as Caster Semenya.
Sidelined by shady science, the 28-year-old middle-distance runner was unable to defend her world 800m title last month, her absence depriving the event of legitimacy. The winner of three world titles and two Olympic golds was denied the chance because of the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) latest version of a "gender verification" regulation that forces women athletes to lower their level of natural testosterone.
Athletics SA and the IAAF sacrificed Semenya for the sake of rigid gender rules, and their lucrative business, which modern-day sport has become.
Wayde van Niekerk is SA’s greatest Olympian. It’s hard to argue with a gold medal and world record, all in one 400m race, at the Rio Olympics of 2016.
There were other Olympians: Penny Heyns’s double gold in the women’s 100m and 200m breaststroke in 1996, along with Josiah Thugwane’s marathon victory; Ryk Neethling, Roland Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns and Darian Townsend upsetting star-filled rival teams at Athens in 2004 to win the 4x100m freestyle relay; Lawrence Ndlovu, James Thompson, Matthew Brittain and John Smith winning rowing’s lightweight fours at the London Games of 2012.
Not to mention Caster Semenya in 2016 …
• Henderson is a veteran journalist and former sports editor of The Times, The Cape Times and The Cape Argus
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