Were the Tswana Tribesmen the first Africans to Compete in the Olympics?

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The modern Olympic Games, sometimes known as the Olympics, are major international athletic events that feature summer and winter sports competitions in which thousands of competitors compete in a range of activities. With over 200 countries competing, the Olympic Games are regarded as the world’s most important sporting event. The Olympic Games are held every four years, with the Summer and Winter Olympics alternating every two years during that time.

Years before South African athlete Reggie Walker won the Olympic 100-meter dash in London, two Tswana tribesmen, Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani, made history by informally competing in the 1904 St Louis Olympics. Because officials couldn’t pronounce their surnames, the two were dubbed LenTau and Yasmani and became the first black Africans to compete in the modern Olympics when they ran in the men’s marathon at the Summer Olympics.

The two had never run such a long distance before. “Rather, they were battle-hardened troops – Boer commandos skilled in horseback riding and guerilla warfare, British imperial machine gunners, and Tswana dispatch runners, all driven to St Louis by the need to earn a livelihood after a long war of attrition,” the Mail and Guardian reported.

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the St. Louis World’s Fair, was the reason behind LenTau and Yasmani coming to St Louis. The world exhibition ran from April to December, and the Olympics were held in August and September.

The South African Dominion gathered a party of 500 to 150 Britons, 200 Boer men, 50 Boer women and children, and 40 Black Africans for the fair, according to a report. The black Africans, LenTau and Yasmani, were to reenact episodes from the Boer Wars, including acting as prisoners of war. During the war, the two were said to have worked as dispatch runners.

However, at the last minute, the two, LenTau and Yasmani, decided to compete in the marathon at the Olympics.LenTau finished eighth barefoot, and Mashiani came in twelfth. LenTau could have done better, according to records, if he hadn’t been chased nearly a mile off course by vicious dogs.

Indeed, the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis have been dubbed one of the wildest in modern Olympic history. Apart from a “racially offensive sideshow,” the games featured only one female category, with the men’s marathon being the worst of all.

The Marathon

According to the Los Angeles Times, the marathon was completed by 32 runners, many of whom had never run a marathon before. Cheating, narcotics, and wild dogs were all reported. The event began at 3 p.m. with the weather nearing 90 degrees Fahrenheit and the sun beating down on the contestants.

Aside from being held on dusty, unpaved roads, the race had only one water station since the organizers intended to see if water had any effect on sports performance. Some of the runners fainted halfway through the race, exhausted and dehydrated, while the first ‘winner’ grabbed a ride for 17 kilometers. According to ABC News, the second champion was likewise high on rat poison and was assisted across the finish line by his trainers.

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