Thanks to the Boer War – we ran in the Olympics

It is difficult to understand the history of our country sometimes, very difficult. I remember it was just a few years after the war when things seemed a little more settled between Boer and British. After hostilities ended General Piet Cronje, now a penniless and dejected man was persuaded to take part in the Boer War Show. This was to be part of the St. Louis World Fair in 1904 and it was set to be a grand affair.

The show derisively called the Boere Sirkus by Cronje’s countrymen had full scale re-enactments of the battles at Colenso and at Paardeberg. For those who love their history will remember Colenso was a battle won by the Boers. This show entailed a cast of hundreds and some reports even say thousands. There were horses, painted backdrops and even artillery pieces. Many veterans of the war played the part of soldiers. The Sirkus was a huge success in St. Louis and everyone just loved it.

As luck would have it the Olympic Games was also held in St. Louis at the same time. The Olympics should have been held Chicago but the organisers decided to move the games to coincide with the World Fair. In those days things were less complicated and you could sommer move the Games, just like that!

Now we all know that fact is stranger than fiction – and if it wasn’t for the fact that the Sirkus was in town at the same time as the Olympics, South Africa would not have taken part in the marathon. It all started with ou Bertie Harris, a runner from Aliwal North. He fancied himself as a bit of an athlete and always wanted to be in the Olympics. According to the official programme he was the first participant to enter. The newspapers described him as the best long distance runner in his country, and noted that he was training very hard daily on the roads of St. Louis for the event.

But the programme also included the names of two other South Africans, numbers 35 and 36 respectively. They are named as “Lentauw, Kaffir, Mail Carrier” and “Yamasani, Kaffir, Mail Carrier” Elsewhere in the programme it is stated that they had both been mail carriers during the Boer War and that they were Zulus. Later research revealed that their real names were Len Tau and Jan Mashiani.

And so on 30 August 1904 the marathon event set off. Sadly ou Berty retired after 24 kilometres and had to hitch a ride back to the finish. But Tau and Mashiani did their country proud, finishing ninth and twelfth respectively. But that is not where the story ends.

Tau’s race was all the more remarkable because he ran barefoot and was chased off the course by a dog. According to a newspaper clipping of the race Tau was seen “cavorting wildly across a stubble field with a plain yellow cur of an American watchdog close on his heels.” He lost over seven minutes in the ordeal but managed to catch the other runners to finish in the top ten.

Back home no mention was made in the media of these achievements, perhaps it was because these guys were black and things were very different back then. Also the event was probably not considered important enough because it was an unofficial run. The South African General Olympic Committee was only established four years later in 1908. Add to this the marathon was not a very familiar event in those days; the first was run in South Africa in 1907.

Ja well – it was thanks to the Boer War and the show in St. Louis, otherwise we would have no marathon runners in the Olympics in 1904. Funny old world this – hey?
Results of the 1904 Olympic Marathon

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About Tom Cottrell

Tom is a struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.
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