If you ask most people outside of Africa about Southern African countries at the Olympic Games, they would probably picture a wiry long-distance runner crossing the line after a gruelling endurance race. But is this a fair preconception? Let’s take a look at some of this region’s best athletes, including legendary medal winners and unlikely hero stories.
Botswana has been attending the Olympic Games since 1980, including swimmers, boxers and athletic runners. Their only medal winner, over 82 attempts, was Nigel Amos at London 2012. The 800-metre hurdler came second to Kenyan David Rudisha in one of the most exciting track races of that years’ games.
However, not long after that Amos began to see the rougher side of fame in his native country. He crashed his car, launched an ill-fated DJ career and declared he could ‘win without training’ in a national interview.
Still, it seemed to be only a minor hurdle for Botswana’s only Olympic medal winner as he breezed past his rival Rudisha to claim gold in the same event at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. Hopefully we’ll see him back in action, at the age of 26, in Tokyo 2020.
Zambia participated in their first Olympic games in 1968 and has only missed one since, which was Montreal 1976. Despite sending 128 athletes in the years since then, they have only picked up two medals. Both of which came on American soil, at Los Angeles 84 and Atlanta 96. Their two winners were flyweight boxer Keith Mwila, who got bronze in ’84 and Samuel Matete who came second in the 400-metre hurdles in 96.
Matete is probably the country’s most famous athlete, having won Gold at the 1991 World Championships, as well as his Olympic achievement. He is also the 400m hurdles African record holder with a time of 47.10 seconds.
Indisputably the most successful sporting country in the region, South Africa has won a total of 86 medals (including 26 golds). They were also the first from Southern Africa to attend the modern Summer Olympics in 1904.
However, they were banned for 24 years – from 1964 to 1988 – due to apartheid. That makes their post-unification medal haul over the years even more impressive. Just a few South Africa gold medallists at the Olympics include:
- Wayde van Niekerk (400, 300 and 200 metres)
- Penelope Heyns (Women’s 100m Breaststroke)
- Caster Semenya (Women’s 800m)
- Josia Thugwane (Marathon)
- Chad Le Clos (Men’s 200m Butterfly)
As you can see, top South African athletes can usually be found in track and field and swimming races. However, back in the day South African’s were often also in contention for, or winners of, Olympic boxing medals and more recently they have found success in rowing.
Zimbabwe have won eight medals the Summer Olympics since they first competed under the name Zimbabwe in 1980. Atypically for African countries, these medals came in Women’s Hockey in 1980 (where they didn’t drop a game over 8 matches) and more recently in swimming. All of which (three Golds, four Silvers) came from Kirsty Coventry, who is Africa’s most decorated Olympian.