Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani were the first black Africans to participate in the Olympics in 1904 in St. Louis., and the only blacks to represent South Africa in the Olympics until the end of apartheid.

They were referred to a LENTAU & YASMANI, as officials could not pronounce their names correctly

South Africa’s official participation in the Olympic Games began in 1908; however, the country’s involvement at the 1904 Games is a great, rarely heard story – revealing the athletes that weren’t there to compete in the first place.

The 1904 Olympic Games

The 1904 Olympics (the third modern Olympic Games) were held in St. Louis, USA as part of the World’s Fair. For seven months, 20 million visitors from around the globe came to see exhibits from 50 countries and to watch the Olympic events that were mixed in with other attractions at the Fair.

Due to the lack of international participation in these Olympic Games (there were only 13 countries), the event organizers invited anybody at the Fair to compete.

The Athletes

One of the exhibits at the World’s Fair was a group of South Africans performing reenactments of battles from the most recent Boer War with the British Empire. Participating in the reenactment was a way for South Africans to earn money after the war that ended in 1902.

Len Tau (Taunyane) and Jan Mashiani, two of the workers in the “Boer War Spectacle” entered the marathon and became the first black participants from Africa in the Olympics.

The Marathon

The marathon started on Tuesday, August 30 at 2:30 p.m. Thirty two athletes from four nations lined up to run the over 40 km (or close to 25 mile) race that included seven large hills.

The conditions were brutal. The summer day was hot (32° C or 90° F) and humid, and the only water stops on the route were at mile 6 and mile 12. The roads were dusty from the horses and automobiles that were clearing the way – making it difficult for the runners to breathe. Only 14 racers completed the marathon.

Len Tau (#35) finished in ninth place, while Jan Mashiani (#36) came in twelfth. Legend has it that one or both of them ran barefooted and were chased off course by a dog.

Another South African, Robert “Bob” Harris, dropped out of the race.

The Boers also entered a team in the tug of war competition but were unsuccessful in beating an American team.