Six South Africans have won Olympic gold medals since the country participated in boxing at the Games from 1920. They were world-beaters who did their country proud – among the very best of all the truly outstanding sports stars the country has produced.
These days it may be hard to find someone who can name them. All of them have died, but their achievements can never be erased from the record books.
They were indeed South Africa’s golden six – Clarence Walker, Willie Smith, Laurie Stevens, Dave Carstens, Gerald Dreyer and George Hunter.
The statistics might have been more impressive had politics not prevented talented black athletes from representing their country and if South Africans were not banned from the Games between 1960 and their readmission in 1992.
Boxing has been an Olympic sport since 1904, but South Africans first competed in 1920 when the Games were held in Antwerp, Belgium.
The golden years were 1920 (Walker), 1924 (Smith) 1932 (Stevens and Carstens) and 1948 (Dreyer and Hunter). This means no South African has won an Olympic boxing title for 72 years.
South Africa’s first Olympic Games gold medallist was Clarence Leonard Walker, who was born in Port Elizabeth on 13 December 1898.
Coached at first by Joe Gorton, Walker won the SA amateur bantamweight title in 1920 and was promptly selected for the SA Games team.
There were eight bantamweight boxers in the competition and Walker outpointed Edward Earl Hartman in the first series. In his second fight he defeated James McKenzie of Great Britain to move into the final.
McKenzie, who later won the British featherweight title as a professional, was dropped in the third round by a punch to the body. McKenzie’s uncle, who was in his corner, seemed to signal to him to claim a foul, which he did.
The referee stopped the fight and ordered that McKenzie be examined by a doctor. Fortunately for Walker, the doctor ruled that the punch had not been low.
In the first series after the bout against Hartman, the American was declared the winner. The spectators roared their disapproval and the referee re-examined the cards. He ordered the two to box an extra round and Walker won.
In the final, Walker was just too good for Chris J Graham of Canada. He won on points.
Willie Smith known as the Wavy Haired Master, won South Africa’s second Olympic Games gold medal when he was crowned bantamweight champion in Paris in 1924.
There were 11 entrants in the division. Smith had a bye in the first round but beat H Wolff of Sweden in his second fight and J Lemouton of France in the third. In the semifinal, he outscored another Frenchman, Jean Ces.
The taller Salvatore Tripoli from America gave Smith a hard fight in the final, but skill and footwork steered the South African to a close points win.
Born William Alexander Smith in Johannesburg on 19 July 1904, the little orphan received his first boxing lessons in the St George’s Home when he was 12 years old.
His teacher was George Harris, South Africa’s first flyweight champion, in 1909. Johnny Watson later took over his training.
Smith and his brother George, who died in a street accident, lost their Scottish father in a mine explosion when they were toddlers.
Their mother married again but her second husband, a Mr Duncan, died within a few years, leaving his widow with two small children.
Unable to look after them, she took them to St George’s. At the age of 15, Willie found a job with the Chamber of Mines in Corner House.
Watson, who had become more like an older brother to the boys, guided Willie to winning the SA flyweight title in 1922 and he was chosen as the bantamweight representative for the 1924 Olympic team.
Laurie Stevens, who began boxing at the Twist Street School in Johannesburg, won his first SA amateur title as a featherweight in 1930 when he was 17.
In the same year he represented South Africa at the Empire Games in Hamilton, Ontario, where he won a featherweight silver medal.
He won the SA lightweight title in 1931 and took the gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics the next year.
Stevens’s parents had come from Cornwall in England and he was born in Johannesburg on 25 February 1913. At the Twist Street School he received his first boxing lessons from a Mr Van Zyl.
He then joined Joe Gorton’s boxing club. Gorton also trained Clarence Walker and Willie Smith.
Later, at Jim Fennessey’s club, Stevens met Dave Carstens, who also won gold at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
At the Empire Games in 1930, inexperience cost the young Stevens a gold medal. Some observers, however, felt he had done enough to outpoint England’s F. R. Meachem in the featherweight final.
Stevens always wore a blue raincoat into the ring and not the conventional gown. However, for the final he decided to borrow a smart gown from one of his teammates.
After his defeat the superstitious Stevens was convinced that not remaining loyal to his old raincoat had cost him the decision. For the rest of his career he wore the faded and scruffy blue raincoat every time he got into the ring.
At the 1932 Olympics, 13 boxers were entered in the lightweight division. In the first series of bouts, Stevens outpointed Jose Padilla Jr from the Philippines. In his second fight, he beat the hard-hitting Franz Kartz of Germany.
In the semifinal, despite the prediction that Italy’s Mario Bianchini would be too strong for him, Stevens won on points. In the final, his two-fisted attack was too much for the Swede, Thure J Ahlqvist. The Springbok won on points to take the gold medal.
David Krynauw Enslin Carstens, who was born in September 1914, was one of South Africa’s heroes at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, where he won the gold medal in the light heavyweight division.
To get to Los Angeles took about a month.
It took two days to get from Johannesburg to Cape Town by train. The voyage on board a Union Castle mail ship to Southampton lasted another 18 days.
After a few days in England, Carstens and his teammates Ivan “Tich” Duke (flyweight), Laurie Stevens (lightweight), Richard Barton (welterweight) and Ernest Pierce (middleweight) sailed for New York, which took another five days. The team spent nearly a month in Los Angeles before the Games began.
During those depression times a team of only 11 Springboks went to Los Angeles. Five of them were boxers. Carstens and Stevens won gold medals and Pierce a bronze.
There were eight entrants in the light heavyweight division. In his first bout, the 18-year-old South African beat the German champion, Hans Berger, on points after knocking his opponent down twice.
In the semifinal he dropped Peter Jorgensen from Denmark three times on his way to a points victory.
And in the final he was just too good for the Italian, Gino Rossini, winning on points.
Gerald Dreyer, possibly the best SA amateur boxer, was born in Pretoria on 22 September 1929. He was eight years old when his father, JC Dreyer, introduced him to boxing at the Pretoria City Club.
The youngster soon developed into a classy boxer under the guidance of Greg Croce and Claude Sterley, who won a silver medal in the heavyweight division at the 1938 Empire Games.
At the age of 16, Dreyer won five titles in eight weeks, including the senior Transvaal lightweight championship.
In 1947 he won the SA amateur lightweight title. When he won it again in 1948, he was the first-choice lightweight in the trials to select the SA team to compete at the Olympic Games in London. He beat Ginger Jonker in the final to make his selection a formality.
A couple of months short of his 19th birthday; he was one of 28 boxers who would compete for the lightweight gold medal. After enjoying a bye in the first series, he outpointed Ernesto C Porto from the Philippines in his first fight and then eliminated Gwind Braby of Norway in the next round.
In the semifinal, Dreyer beat Svend Wad from Denmark to meet Joseph Vissers in the final. He dropped the Belgian in the second round on his way to winning the gold medal.
Many critics felt Dreyer was the best boxer at the Games but he did not receive the Val Barker Cup.
George Hunter, who was born in Brentwood Park, Benoni, on 22 July 1927, was a member of the most successful SA team of boxers to compete at the Olympic Games to date.
Hunter won the light heavyweight gold medal and the Val Barker Cup for the best boxer in London in 1948. Gerald Dreyer won the lightweight gold medal, featherweight Dennis Shepherd won silver and heavyweight Johnny Arthur brought back a bronze medal.
Duggie du Preez finished fourth in the welterweight division but bantamweight Vic Toweel was beaten in his first fight in what was described as one of the worst decisions at the Games.
The boxers were trained by the legendary Jack Eustace from the Booysens Club and trained in Joe Bloom’s gymnasium in London before the Games.
Hunter fought in 90 amateur bouts. He lost five, drew three and won 82. He became the SA amateur middleweight champion in 1947, four years after taking up boxing, but moved up to light heavyweight to qualify in the Olympic trials. Hunter, a boilermaker by trade, celebrated his 21st birthday at the Games. He was one of 24 competitors in the light heavyweight class and defeated Ray A Edwards of Jamaica in his first fight.
He then defeated one of the favourites for the gold medal, Charles W Spieser of the US, before winning on points against Finland’s Harry V Siljander and Mauro Cia from Argentina to reach the final.
In a faultless exhibition, he outboxed Donald E Scott, a 20-year-old sergeant in the British Military Police, to take the gold medal.
–Ron Jackson / Supersport.com