The Most Famous

ATHLETES from South Africa

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This page contains a list of the greatest South African Athletes. The pantheon dataset contains 3,055 Athletes, 25 of which were born in South Africa. This makes South Africa the birth place of the 32nd most number of Athletes behind Austria and Bulgaria.

Top 10

The following people are considered by Pantheon to be the top 10 most legendary South African Athletes of all time. This list of famous South African Athletes is sorted by HPI (Historical Popularity Index), a metric that aggregates information on a biography’s online popularity. Visit the rankings page to view the entire list of South African Athletes.

Photo of Esther Brand

1. Esther Brand (1922 - 2015)

With an HPI of 62.91, Esther Brand is the most famous South African Athlete.  Her biography has been translated into 24 different languages on wikipedia.

Esther Cornelia Brand (née van Heerden; 29 September 1922 – 20 June 2015) was a South African athlete. She competed at the 1952 Summer Olympics and won a gold medal in the high jump, placing 20th in the discus throw. Brand was ranked world #1 in the high jump in 1940–41 and 1952, #3 in 1951 and #5 in 1939. In 1941 she equaled the world record of 1.66 m.Born in Springbok, Northern Cape, she attended Maitland High School in Cape Town, South Africa. She died after a fall in 2015.

Photo of Reggie Walker

2. Reggie Walker (1889 - 1951)

With an HPI of 60.67, Reggie Walker is the 2nd most famous South African Athlete.  His biography has been translated into 23 different languages.

Reginald ("Reggie") Edgar Walker (16 March 1889 in Durban – 5 November 1951) was a South African athlete and the 1908 Olympic champion in the 100 metres.Born in Natal, Walker, the 1907 South African Champion, was not among the big favourites for the 100 metres at the 1908 Summer Olympics. He even had trouble getting to London, as he lacked the necessary finances until a Natal sportswriter collected funds to support Walker's travel. In England, he was coached by Sam Mussabini, later also the coach of Harold Abrahams. Several of the big names did not qualify for the final, but Walker did. His first round was a relatively easy victory run in 11.0 seconds. In the second round, Walker edged out William W. May of the United States while tying the Olympic record of 10.8 seconds. This qualified him for the final. There he competed against three North Americans, including James Rector of the United States, who had equalled the Olympic Record in both of the qualifier rounds. Walker beat Rector in the final by about a foot and half, again equaling the Olympic record in 10.8 seconds. Walker is still the youngest winner of the Olympic 100 metres as of 2016 (at 19 years and 128 days). During World War I, Walker served with the 7th Infantry in German South West Africa, before joining the South African Overseas Expeditionary Force in 1917, serving in France, during which time he received a gunshot wound to the head. Walker was discharged from the Army in 1919 and later worked as a clerk with Ropes & Mattings in Nairobi, Kenya Colony, before returning to South Africa.

Photo of Bevil Rudd

3. Bevil Rudd (1894 - 1948)

With an HPI of 59.23, Bevil Rudd is the 3rd most famous South African Athlete.  His biography has been translated into 21 different languages.

Bevil Gordon D'Urban Rudd (5 October 1894 – 2 February 1948) was a South African athlete, the 1920 Olympic Champion in the 400 metres.

Photo of Oscar Pistorius

4. Oscar Pistorius (1986 - )

With an HPI of 58.91, Oscar Pistorius is the 4th most famous South African Athlete.  His biography has been translated into 61 different languages.

Oscar Leonard Carl Pistorius (; Afrikaans: [pisˈtɔrjus]; born 22 November 1986) is a South African former professional sprinter and convicted murderer. Both of his feet were amputated when he was 11 months old owing to a congenital defect; he was born missing the outside of both feet and both fibulae. Pistorius ran in both non-disabled sprint events and in sprint events for below-knee amputees. He was the tenth athlete to compete at both the Paralympic Games and Olympic Games. After becoming a Paralympic champion, Pistorius attempted to enter non-disabled international competitions, over persistent objections by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and arguments that his artificial limbs gave an unfair advantage. Pistorius prevailed in this legal dispute. At the 2011 World Championships in Athletics, Pistorius was the first amputee to win a non-disabled world track medal. At the 2012 Summer Olympics, Pistorius was the first double-leg amputee participant. On 14 February 2013, Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend, paralegal and model Reeva Steenkamp, in his Pretoria home. He claimed he had mistaken Steenkamp for an intruder hiding in the bathroom. He was arrested and charged with murder. At his trial the following year, Pistorius was found not guilty of murder, but guilty of culpable homicide. He received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide and a concurrent three-year suspended sentence for a separate reckless endangerment conviction.Pistorius was temporarily released on house arrest in 2015 while the case was presented on appeal to a panel at the Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa, which overturned the culpable homicide verdict and convicted him of murder. In July 2016, Judge Thokozile Masipa extended Pistorius's sentence to six years. On appeal by the state for a longer prison sentence, the Supreme Court of Appeal increased the prison term to a total of 15 years. Pistorius will be eligible for parole in 2023.

Photo of Sid Atkinson

5. Sid Atkinson (1901 - 1977)

With an HPI of 57.24, Sid Atkinson is the 5th most famous South African Athlete.  Her biography has been translated into 19 different languages.

Sidney James Montford "Sid" Atkinson (14 March 1901 – 31 August 1977) was a South African athlete, winner of 110 m hurdles at the 1928 Summer Olympics.Atkinson came onto the international athletics scene in 1922, when he ran the 110 m hurdles in 15.2 and the 400 m hurdles in 56.5. He was also a notable long jumper.At the 1924 Summer Olympics, the favourite for the 110 m hurdles was American George Guthrie, but as the race started, Atkinson and another American Daniel Kinsey got off to a quick start and ran nearly together until the eighth flight when Atkinson edged ahead. Atkinson clipped his toe on the last barrier, giving Kinsey enough of lead to break the tape and win the gold. Guthrie crashed through the barriers behind the two medalists and was disqualified.Atkinson reappeared at the next Olympics, finally getting his gold after the disappointment of 1924, beating the world record holder Steve Anderson from the United States into second place.

Photo of Clarence Walker

6. Clarence Walker (1898 - 1957)

With an HPI of 56.52, Clarence Walker is the 6th most famous South African Athlete.  His biography has been translated into 15 different languages.

Clarence Leonard "Sal" Walker (13 December 1898 – 30 April 1957) was a South African bantamweight professional boxer who competed in the early 1920s. He won the gold medal at the 1920 Summer Olympics, defeating Chris Graham in the final. He was born in Port Elizabeth, and died in Roodepoort, Gauteng. His paternal grandfather was from Scotland.

Photo of Caster Semenya

7. Caster Semenya (1991 - )

With an HPI of 53.22, Caster Semenya is the 7th most famous South African Athlete.  Her biography has been translated into 35 different languages.

Mokgadi Caster Semenya OIB (born 7 January 1991) is a South African middle-distance runner and winner of two Olympic gold medals and three World Championships in the women's 800 metres. She first won gold at the World Championships in 2009, and went on to win at the 2016 Olympics, and 2017 World Championships, where she also won a bronze medal in the 1500 metres. After the doping disqualification of Mariya Savinova, she was also awarded gold medals for the 2011 World Championships and the 2012 Olympics.Semenya is an intersex woman, assigned female at birth, with XY chromosomes and naturally elevated testosterone levels caused by the presence of internal testes. Following her victory at the 2009 World Championships, she was made to undergo sex testing, and cleared to return to competition the following year. In 2019, new World Athletics rules came into force preventing women like Semenya from participating in 400m, 800m, and 1500m events in the female classification unless they take medication to suppress their testosterone levels. In 2021, she filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights against the restrictions.

Photo of Lillian Board

8. Lillian Board (1948 - 1970)

With an HPI of 51.77, Lillian Board is the 8th most famous South African Athlete.  Her biography has been translated into 17 different languages.

Lillian Barbara Board, (13 December 1948 – 26 December 1970) was a British athlete. She won the silver medal in the 400 metres at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and two gold medals at the 1969 European Championships in Athletics in Athens. Her career was cut short in 1970 when she developed the colorectal cancer that within months would claim her life.

Photo of Wayde van Niekerk

9. Wayde van Niekerk (1992 - )

With an HPI of 51.52, Wayde van Niekerk is the 9th most famous South African Athlete.  His biography has been translated into 36 different languages.

Wayde van Niekerk (South African English: , Afrikaans: [fan niˈkɛrk]; born 15 July 1992) is a South African track and field sprinter who competes in the 200 and 400 metres. In the 400 metres, he is the current world and Olympic record holder which he broke in the Olympic finals. He also holds the world-best time in the 300 metres. Van Niekerk was the silver medallist in the 400m at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and took silver in the 4×400 metres relay at the 2013 Summer Universiade. He also represented South Africa at the 2013 and 2015 Athletics World Championships. At the 2015 World Championships, he won the gold medal in the 400 meters. He defended his title two years later, in London, where he also won the silver medal in the 200 meters race. In the 2016 Olympic Games men's 400m, Van Niekerk won the gold medal with a world record time of 43.03 seconds (reaction time 0.181 s) at age 24 years and 30 days, beating the time of 43.18 seconds set by Michael Johnson during the 1999 World Championships in Athletics in Seville, Spain.In 2016, Van Niekerk became the first sprinter in history to have run the 100 metres in under 10 seconds, 200 metres in under 20 seconds, and 400 metres in under 44 seconds. In 2017, after a 30.81 seconds victory in the seldom-run 300 metres distance, breaking Michael Johnson's world-best time of 30.85 which was set in 2000, Van Niekerk became the only sprinter in history to have run sub-10, sub-20, sub-31 and sub-44 performances at 100m, 200m, 300m and 400m respectively.

Photo of Zola Budd

10. Zola Budd (1966 - )

With an HPI of 49.34, Zola Budd is the 10th most famous South African Athlete.  Her biography has been translated into 24 different languages.

Zola Pieterse (née Budd; born 26 May 1966) is a South African middle-distance and long-distance runner. She competed at the 1984 Olympic Games for Great Britain and the 1992 Olympic Games for South Africa, both times in the 3000 metres. In 1984 (unratified) and 1985, she broke the world record in the 5000 metres. She was also a two-time winner at the World Cross Country Championships (1985–1986). Budd's career was unusual in that she mainly trained and raced barefoot. She moved with her family to South Carolina in 2008, and competes at marathons and ultramarathons. She volunteers as assistant coach at Coastal Carolina University in Conway. Her mile best of 4:17.57 in 1985, still stands as the British record.

Pantheon has 25 people classified as athletes born between 1889 and 1993. Of these 25, 18 (72.00%) of them are still alive today. The most famous living athletes include Oscar Pistorius, Caster Semenya, and Wayde van Niekerk. The most famous deceased athletes include Esther Brand, Reggie Walker, and Bevil Rudd. As of October 2020, 6 new athletes have been added to Pantheon including Clarence Walker, Frantz Kruger, and Karin Melis Mey.

Living Athletes

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Deceased Athletes

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Newly Added Athletes (2020)

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Which Athletes were alive at the same time? This visualization shows the lifespans of the 7 most globally memorable Athletes since 1700.