South Africa has a proud sporting history, despite a dark period during which the country was ostracised by the world because of its apartheid policies of only allowing white people into national teams. Although this did retard sporting development to a certain extent, today South Africans hold many world records and titles across a host of disciplines, on both an individual and team level.
The country is also renowned for its successful hosting of major sporting events. Among these are also the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the 1996 African Cup of Nations and World Cup of Golf, the 1998 World Cup of Athletics, the 2003 Cricket World Cup, the 2006 Paralympic Swimming World Championships, and the inaugural World Twenty20 Championship, held in 2007.
In 2009 alone the country staged a number of big international tournaments, such as the British and Irish Lions rugby tour, the Indian Premier League and International Cricket Council's (ICC) Champions Trophy, and the 2009 Confederations Cup.
In June 2010 the biggest event yet held in South Africa, and the first one to take place on African soil, kicks off – the Fifa World Cup of football.
South African sports fans are among the most fervent in the world. The most popular spectator sports are football, cricket and rugby, but South Africa has also excelled on both the motoring and the athletics track, in the pool, on the green, in the air, in the ring, and on other sports fields.
Sections in this article:
When the National Party took power in 1948 it began to implement policies that classified South Africans according to race. This applied to all areas of interaction, including sport, and meant that only white citizens were allowed to represent the country in the international sporting arena.
So harsh were the restrictions that overseas teams comprising players of various races were not allowed to enter the country.
The world reacted in a number of ways, among them banning South African sporting teams from international competition. The first to take action was the International Table Tennis Federation in 1956. The world governing body of table tennis removed the all-white South African Table Tennis Union from its membership and proclaimed the multi-racial South African Table Tennis Board as the organisation it preferred.
Immediately the government withdrew the passports of players belonging to the board, effectively preventing them from competing internationally. This was just the start. In 1961 the Football Association of South Africa was suspended from Fifa membership, although it was reinstated two years later.
Even the non-racial South African Sports Association, established in 1959, gave up after three years of trying to enlist the cooperation of white sports associations, and appealed to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for South Africa’s expulsion from the games. The IOC was tentative at first, issuing only a warning to which the government responded with half-hearted measures.
The IOC soon realised that stronger action was needed, and South Africa was banned from the 1964 Tokyo games. In 1970 the country was finally expelled altogether from the Olympic movement. It was only allowed to participate again in 1992 at the Barcelona summer games.
For many years the country’s top players had only themselves to compete against, and many a gifted sportsperson was denied a glittering international career. Some took the brave step of leaving their homeland to further their careers in other countries. One of the most outstanding was Sir Basil D’Oliveira, a coloured cricketer who grew up in Cape Town.
D’Oliveira was one of those who started to mature as a player just around the time of the institution of apartheid policies. With no hope of an international career playing for his country, he emigrated to England in 1960, later became a British citizen, and gained his national colours in 1966.
D’Oliveira was a famed part of the scandal surrounding the 1968 England tour to South Africa, which ended before it even started when then prime minister BJ Vorster refused the team entry into South Africa because D’Oliveira was included. The tour was cancelled and England did not play another official test match against South Africa until 1994.
Today the all-rounder is regarded as one of the greats and although he never played for his home country, in 2000 he was nominated as one of South Africa’s 10 cricketers of the century.
South African all-white teams that toured abroad were made to feel distinctly unwelcome, and some tours were cancelled midway. There were a few so-called rebel tours during the 1980s, but these were not so successful.
However, with the unbanning of the African National Congress in 1990 and the subsequent release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison, the doors were once again opened to the South African sporting community. Since then, a number of the country’s defining moments have been achieved through sport.
The history of football in South Africa goes back as far as the late 19th century. The first formal club was established in 1879 in Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal province. Most games took place against teams from the colonial British forces, and local teams were made up largely of European immigrants.
The next town to catch football fever was Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, followed by Cape Town in 1880 and Johannesburg in 1889.
The Natal Football Association was the first to form in 1882 and other provinces followed suit.
The first tourists to the country were the English club Corinthians, which arrived in 1897. The first South African team to go abroad was the Orange Free State Bantu Soccer, which toured England in 1898.
The next tour saw South Africa taking a nine-week boat trip to South America, where they fared exceptionally well. The last international game before sanctions took hold was against Israel in 1954.
Professional football was only introduced in 1959 with the establishment of the National Football League. Twelve years later the National Professional Soccer League was formed and later changed its name to the Premier Soccer League, the name by which it is known today. The first league champion was the popular Orlando Pirates team, which still exists. Other major local clubs are Kaizer Chiefs, Mamelodi Sundowns, Moroka Swallows, Supersport United, Ajax Cape Town, and Santos.
South Africa’s football governing body is the South African Football Association (Safa), which started with that name in 1882 and later changed it to the Football Association of South Africa. However, it reverted back to its original name in 1991 with the joining of the Football Association of South Africa, the South African Soccer Association, the South African Soccer Federation and the South African National Football Association.
In the same year, after a long period of exile, South Africa was awarded observer status at the Confederation of African Football (CAF) congress. In 1992 the country was readmitted to the Fifa fold, followed by membership of CAF.
Since then the national men’s team Bafana Bafana and women’s team Banyana Banyana have notched up a number of achievements. Bafana Bafana came away as champions at the 1996 CAF African Cup of nations, and qualified for the 1998, 2002 and 2006 Fifa World Cup.
Banyana Banyana striker Noko Matlou was named Africa’s 2008 Woman Footballer of the Year early in 2009. The team is currently ranked third in Africa.
South African players have also excelled overseas. One of the most popular is Bafana Bafana captain Lucas Radebe, who played for Leeds United from 1994 to 2005. His highly successful stint as captain for that team, from 1998 to 2002, earned him a place in the hearts of English football fans.
Cricket arrived in South Africa under British colonisation. The first definite reference to the game was a match in Cape Town in 1808, offering a prize of 1 000 rix-dollars.
The governing body is Cricket South Africa. South Africa’s oldest cricket club is the Port Elizabeth Cricket Club, founded in 1843. It boasts an older pedigree than most clubs in the world.
The first championship took place here in 1876, with teams from Cape Town, Grahamstown, King Williams Town, and Port Elizabeth vying for the prize. It was won by King Williams Town, which repeated the feat the following year.
In 1888, Sir Donald Currie, the owner of the Castle shipping line, sponsored the first ever visiting team, England, for a two-test series. England won both, but in the process South Africa became the third official test-playing nation, alongside England and Australia.
Currie also established the Currie Cup in 1888, a provincial competition although not all provinces competed initially. Transvaal defeated Kimberley to win the first Currie Cup, and from 1892 onwards it became the national championship. There is also a rugby Currie Cup, which dates back to 1889.
South Africa’s first overseas tour was in 1894 to England. However, the team had to wait until they were back home for their first test victory, which came on 4 January 1906 at the old Wanderers in Johannesburg, against the same nation. The first test series win away from home came many years later, against England in 1935.
The so-called timeless test, the last ever such game to be played and the longest on record, took place in Durban between 3 and 14 March 1938, also against England. The game was abandoned on the 10th day of play, with England on 654 for five wickets in the last innings, just 42 runs short of the target of 696 set for them by South Africa. The visitors had to catch the 8.05pm train that night from Durban to Cape Town, in order to arrange their departure on the Athlone Castle three days hence. England could not postpone their departure date.
The South African team continued to grow in strength and talent, and during the 1963/64 tour to Australia, four players emerged who would become legends of the game – Peter and Graeme Pollock, Eddie Barlow and Colin Bland.
Then came the apartheid-related isolation which would endure for 21 years. South Africa was only readmitted to international cricket by the ICC in 1991, just in time for the World Cup of 1992 in Australia. This was the setting for the famous rain-marred semi-final between South Africa and England, which ended in South Africa’s revised, and impossible, target of 21 runs off one ball.
South Africa at that stage were new to the shortened format of the game, having played their first ever one day international (ODI) against India just weeks before.
Since then the Proteas, as the national team is now known, have established a formidable reputation as one of cricket’s best teams. The side is especially known for its sharp fielding and attacking bowling, which formerly relied on pace but has become more varied in the last few years with the inclusion of top-class spinners such as Johan Botha and Roelof van der Merwe.
During the 1999 World Cup South Africa and Australia clashed in a thrilling semi-final, which ended with the last man, fast bowler Allan Donald, being run out in the last over, with just one run needed by the Proteas to win.
That game and the so-called 438 game, contested between the same two nations in 2006, are considered to be two of the greatest ODIs ever. The 438 game earned the Proteas the record of the highest successful run chase after Australia had reached a mind-boggling 434 runs, and, for three months, the highest team total in ODI history. The team reached their target with one ball to spare.
Just three months later Sri Lanka made 443-9 off 50 overs against the Netherlands in the latter country, surpassing the South African record.
In 2003 South Africa hosted its first cricket World Cup, but failed to achieve their goal of becoming the first nation to win the sought-after title on home turf. The Proteas were eliminated in the first stage.
The many highlights over the years were partly dimmed by a tragic event in South African cricket history. In October 2000 the Proteas captain Hansie Cronje, one of the most successful captains ever in terms of matches won, was found guilty of match-fixing. Cronje was handed a lifetime ban against playing and coaching.
At just 32 years of age he died tragically in a plane crash on 1 June 2002, and is still revered by the majority of the South African cricketing community as a sporting icon.
Future stars are nurtured through careful coaching during their educational years, and then go on to compete in the three domestic series – the Supersport Series, the MTN40 series, and the Standard Bank Pro20 Series.
South Africa is consistently ranked among the top teams in the world, and has taken the number one spot on several occasions.
South Africa is indisputably one of the great rugby-playing nations. In 2009 the country took just about every major title on offer, including the World Cup; the World Sevens Cup; the Super 14 trophy, a southern hemisphere tournament; the Tri Nations title which is contested with Australia and New Zealand; the Freedom Cup (against New Zealand); the Mandela Challenge Plate (against Australia); and a series win against the touring British and Irish Lions.
The only major trophy not held by South Africa during 2009 is the Six Nations, but only because it is a competition for northern hemisphere teams.
The national team, the Springboks, and their great rivals, the New Zealand All Blacks, have swapped places at the top of the International Rugby Board’s ranking since 2007.
Like cricket, the history of rugby also goes back to the 19th century, when the first game was played in Cape Town in August 1862. The venue was the Green Point Common, now undergoing an extensive upgrade for the 2010 Fifa World Cup.
The city’s Hamilton Sea Point Club is the oldest rugby club in the country and was founded in 1875. The following year saw the establishment of the Villager Club, also in Cape Town, and from there other clubs around the country sprang up.
The South African Rugby Board was set up in 1889 and became the umbrella organisation under which regional rugby unions operated. The first inter-provincial tournament took place in the same year, with Western Province taking the Raadsbeker, the trophy which today stands in the South African Rugby Museum in Cape Town.
From 1892 the Currie Cup and the Board’s Trophy were contested nationally, but in 1957 the Currie Cup became the main inter-provincial tournament. The Currie Cup was established by the same Sir Donald Currie who was the force behind the cricket cup. On the eve of their maiden South African tour in 1891 Currie gave it to the captain of the British team, telling him that the trophy must be awarded to the first side to beat the tourists. Afterwards, said Currie, it should become a floating trophy for the inter-provincial champions.
The English team unfortunately won all of their 19 matches, so the cup went to the team that had lost by the smallest margin, and that was Griqualand West. In the early years of the tournament there was no final – the team which finished top of the log took the spoils. The first Currie Cup final was played in 1939 and it has since become one of the most anticipated events on the South African rugby calendar.
Only five years later did South Africa score an international win by beating its British rivals. Around this time the traditional green jersey was introduced, followed a few years later by the emblem of a springbok, the gazelle that now adorns every national rugby jersey.
In 1906 the first South African rugby team to visit Britain arrived in London. Journalists had recently bestowed the nickname of “All Blacks” on the New Zealand team because of the monochromatic colour of their kit. In the meantime, the South African team, which had no nickname yet, visited a zoo and noticed a small herd of springbok. Thinking quickly, they decided to adopt the fleet-footed animal as their totem.
The next day South African captain Paul Roos mentioned this to the press, and the name has stuck ever since. This was also when the now-familiar green and gold uniform was first worn.
From then until the late 1960s South Africa continued to compete against teams from Australia, New Zealand, England, Scotland Wales and Ireland.
However, politics eventually caught up with rugby and in 1969 the Springbok tour to England was disrupted by violent protests. A tour to South Africa in 1976 by the All Blacks was also widely condemned, especially as it happened soon after the Soweto riots. Even the Olympic Games felt the effects, as 28 countries boycotted the 1976 event in protest.
In 1977 the Commonwealth unanimously adopted the Gleneagles Agreement, which was meant to discourage sporting contact with South Africa on any level. A few countries defied the decree, such as New Zealand which allowed South Africa to tour in 1981, but their defiance was short-lived as the International Rugby Board subsequently banned South Africa from international rugby.
Because of the ban South Africa was unable to play in the first two Rugby World Cup tournaments in 1987 and 1991.
The country was readmitted to international competition in 1992, and in the same year the South African Rugby Football Union was formed out of the merger of the South African Rugby Union and the South African Rugby Board. In 2005 the new body changed its name to the South African Rugby Union, as it now currently known.
The Springboks made their World Cup debut at the 2005 event, which took place in South Africa. To the delight of the nation, the home team won in a thrilling 15-12 defeat against the All Blacks.
The triumph is remembered as one of the country’s proudest sporting moments, and a great force for unity. The iconic photograph of then president Nelson Mandela handing victorious Springbok captain Francois Pienaar the Webb Ellis trophy has entrenched itself in sporting history. Mandela wore a replica of Pienaar’s number six jersey.
The following year South Africa became only the second in history to win the World Cup twice, along with Australia, reinforcing its reputation as one of the greatest rugby-playing nations on earth.
Springbok rugby celebrated its centenary in 2006. In 2009 the Springboks were named the IRB's Team of the Year Award, having previously won the prestigious honour in 2004 and 2007.
In golf, the legendary Bobby Locke stands out as one of the giants of the game. Locke was one of the first internationally successful local golfers and helped draw the attention of the world to the country’s golfing prowess.
Locke played in his first professional tournament at the age of 18. He won 38 tournaments at home, and won the British Open four times.
Gary Player, or the Black Knight, is another South African golfing legend. One of only five golfers ever to win the Grand Slam, Player clinched nine major titles and set the standard for a new generation of young South African golfers. He is still regarded as one of the greatest golfers in the history of the sport, and was awarded national honours, the Order of Ikhamanga in gold, in 2003.
These young trailblazers, including Rory Sabbatini, Ernie “Big Easy” Els and Retief “The Goose” Goosen, are building on the foundation laid down for them by the veterans.
South Africa has also produced a few outstanding women golfers, such as Sally Little, who achieved the best individual score at the 1970 World Team Championship in Madrid.
The game was first played in South Africa back in 1885 in Cape Town, and has since spread across the country, which is regarded as something of a golfer’s paradise with its excellent weather and professionally designed courses.
The governing bodies are the South African Golf Union, formed in 1910, and the South African Ladies Golf Union, formed in 1914.
The boxing ring has been graced by many South African-born world champions. The sport traces its origins back to the second half of the 19th century and the diamond and gold fields. South African boxers have been remarkably successful in the ring, winning 49 world titles between 1927 and 2001.
The most prolific period was the 1990s – in 1995 there were six world champions, in 1996 there were five, and in 1997 there were six. South Africa boasted eight world champions in 1998, and five in 1999.
South Africa’s first world champion was Vic Toweel, of the Toweel boxing dynasty, also known as the “Benoni Bomb”. Toweel took the bantamweight title in 1950 at the age of 23.
Brian Mitchell is one of South Africa’s boxing legends. The junior lightweight first took the world title in 1986, and defended it a world record 12 times before his retirement in 1991. Mitchell was a dual title holder who at one time held both the World Boxing Association and the International Boxing Federation junior lightweight titles.
Because of South Africa’s sporting isolation Mitchell was not allowed to defend his title at home, but was forced to compete abroad more and more. Mitchell never lost a title fight and his string of 12 successful defences is still the record in that division.
The charismatic Kallie Knoetze, a heavyweight boxer, reached his peak in 1979 when he was ranked third in the world. Although Knoetze never won a world title he was extremely popular with South African boxing fans. After his retirement in 1981 he became an actor, although his screen career was short-lived.
Knoetze’s heavyweight contemporary Gerrie Coetzee was the first man from the African continent to fight for the world heavyweight title, and the first to win it. Coetzee did win the coveted world crown in 1983, defeating Michael Dokes in a bout fought in Akron, Ohio. In 2003 the boxer was awarded South Africa's highest honour, the Order of Ikhamanga in bronze, for his sporting achievements.
The left-handed Corrie Sanders won the World Boxing Organisation (WBO) heavyweight title in 2003, knocking out the Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko in the second round.
Dingaan Thobela won three world titles – the WBO and World Boxing Association (WBA) lightweight titles, in September 1990 and June 1993 respectively, and the World Boxing Council middleweight title in September 2000.
But the ever-popular Jacob "Baby Jake" Matlala is the only South African boxer to have won four titles in three different divisions. Matlala won the WBO flyweight title in May 1993, the WBO light flyweight title in November 1995, as well as the International Boxing Association junior flyweight title in July 1997, and the same division under the World Boxing Union in February 2001.
Other South African world champions include Welcome Ncita (International Boxing Federation super bantamweight, 1994), Cassius Baloyi (IBF super featherweight, 2005), Malcolm Klassen (IBF junior lightweight, 2006), and Mzonke Fana (IBF junior lightweight, 2007).
Athletics is another sport at which South Africans have long excelled. The country’s distinguished track history starts with Reggie Walker, who won the 100m at the Olympic Games in London in 1908 – the only South African, and African, to have won the Olympic 100m title.
In 1979, Matthews “Loop-en-val” Motshwarateu became the first South African to run the 10 000m in under 28 minutes, in one of the most sensational performances in SA athletics history – only three other South Africans have since beaten his time of 27 minutes and 48.2 seconds. "Loop-en-val" (Afrikaans, meaning “walk and fall”) was also the first black South African athlete to break a world record, and still holds the SA 10km road record.
The Comrades, widely regarded as the world's greatest ultra-marathon, belonged to one man throughout the 1980s. Bruce Fordyce won the event on nine occasions: in 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1990. He didn't win in 1989, but then again he didn't run that year…
Zola Budd, known and loved by South Africans as a barefooted runner, was one of the stars of her time, able to compete comfortably in distances varying from 1 500m to 10 000m. She emigrated to the UK in the early 1980s in the hopes of competing in the Olympic Games. Budd’s application for citizenship was approved and she realised her dream of stepping onto the Olympic track, but the 3 000m race was to end in disaster when Budd and American Mary Decker-Slaney collided.
In the later years of her career Budd set up a number of world record titles on the outdoor and indoor tracks, as well as in the cross-country division. She has since returned to her homeland.
Elana Meyer, one of the world’s top middle-distance athletes in her day, won over 20 South African titles on the track, in the half-marathon, 15km, cross-country and marathon. She also held world records for 15km and the half marathon, and boasted five of the 15 best half-marathon times in history, a consistency unmatched by anyone else.
At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, South Africa’s first appearance since the sporting boycott was lifted. Competing in the 10 000m, Meyer almost won gold but was beaten on the final lap by Ethiopia's Derartu Tulu.
In 1996 Josiah Thugwane emerged as a star of the marathon world when he won the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Atlanta. Thugwane added another gold to South Africa’s haul of two, won by swimming sensation Penny Heyns.
Two of the biggest names in triathlon history grew up in Durban, South Africa, but never represented the country. Paula Newby-Fraser, representing Zimbabwe, is an eight-time Ironman world champion, while Simon Lessing, representing Great Britain, is a five-time world champion.
Jody Scheckter is the only South African to have won motor racing's Formula One title. He became champion while driving for Ferrari in 1979. The Italian team had to wait another 21 years for their next driver's title, won by Michael Schumacher.
Motorcross star Greg Albertyn made his mark overseas, winning the 125cc world title in 1992, followed by the world 250cc title in 1993 and 1994. He then moved to the United States, where he won the 250cc motorcross title in 1999.
South African powerboat racing legend Peter Lindenberg won the national Formula One title 15 times between from 1981 to 2001. He might have won further titles had he not also competed in the Powerboat Racing World Series.
Giniel de Villiers, a multi-talented racing driver from the Western Cape, is the 2009 Dakar Rally champion. De Villiers is also a multiple South African touring car and off-road racing champion.
Swimming in the country is overseen by Swimming South Africa.
Natalie du Toit, who lost her left leg in a scooter accident, made history when she qualified for the final of the 800m freestyle at the 2002 Commonwealth Games – the first athlete with a disability to qualify for the final of an international able-bodied event. In 2008 Du Toit became the first athlete with a disability to compete at the Olympic Games, finishing 16th in the 10-kilometre open water event.
Breaststroke swimmer Penny Heyns broke four world records in the 100m and 200m in the space of two days in July 1999. She went on to set eight world records in 11 races.
Karen Muir was voted into Swimming's Hall of Fame in 1980. She became the youngest ever world record holder in any sport in 1965, at age 12, when she established a new mark in the 110 yards backstroke. She went on to set 15 world records. Muir’s record as the youngest person to break a world record in any sport still stands today.
Roland Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend and Ryk Neethling won the gold medal in the 4x100 freestyle relay at the 2004 Summer Olympics, breaking the world record in the process.
South African swimmers excelled at the 2009 FINA/Arena Swimming World Cup. Kathryn Meaklim smashed the world record for the 400m individual medley. Cameron van der Bergh, who also holds the 100m short course world record, bettered his own world record in the 50m breaststroke and went on to set a new world record time in the 100m breaststroke. George du Rand set a new 200m backstroke world record, and Roland Schoeman added a new world record time for the 50m freestyle.
Van der Bergh was named as the winner of the Best Performance award at the end of the event, with Schoeman as the runner-up.
The South African Tennis Association is the country's governing body for the sport.
Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan won 57 career doubles titles, including three Wimbledon crowns. After teaming up they played 45 matches before they suffered their first loss.
Wayne Ferreira was a far greater player than many South Africans gave him credit for, as one little-known fact reveals: he boasted a 6-7 career head-to-head record against Pete Sampras, and with his partner Pietie Norval took silver at the 1992 Olympics in the men's doubles. He also cannot be faulted for perseverance: he ended his career having played in a record 56 Grand Slam tournaments in succession.
South Africa has one Davis Cup title to its credit – but not one that it likes to boast about. When India withdrew from the final in 1974 in protest against the South African government's apartheid policy, South Africa became the winner by default.