400m podium at 1960 Olympics (File)
Durban - While South Africans are still in awe of Wayde van Niekerk’s 400m run at the Rio Olympics, there is a KwaZulu-Natal connection with the race.
Van Niekerk’s world record win came 56 years after a South African had last won a medal in the event at the 1960 Games in Rome, Italy.
KZN track athlete Malcolm Spence won bronze, finishing behind German Carl Kaufmann and winner Otis Davis of the USA.
In the celebrations of Van Niekerk’s accomplishment, Spence has gone unnoticed.
According to Spence’s son, Dave, who lives in Richmond, his father’s talent was first spotted by Dr John Powell, Rhodes University’s head of physical education.
Dave said Powell had told his father: “My boy, if you do what I tell you, then you will be at the next Olympics”.
“He heeded the advice and Powell was his coach and mentor for most of his running years. It was the start of great things and my father represented South Africa as a 17-year-old in Melbourne, where he made the final but finished sixth.”
By the time the Rome Games came around, Spence was recognised as one of the finest 400m runners in the world. He was favoured in some circles to take the gold, but he was hampered by a torn Achilles tendon, sustained in preliminary training at the SAP College in Pretoria, prior to departure.
“He had 10 painkilling injections to enable him to compete in the final in Rome and hobbled from the track after his run,” said Dave.
That run saw Spence earn a bronze medal. Those who saw the race rated it as the greatest 400m ever run with all six finalists finishing inside 46 seconds. Spence crossed the line in 45.5 seconds, having gone out hard and led the field as they turned into the final straight.
According to a report, the South African and Empire record holder, running in the fourth lane, put in one of the most heroic performances yet seen at an Olympic Games. Spence was striding out beautifully and appeared set to win but the German and American got on terms with him and try as he might, he could not hold them off and had to settle for third.
“Dad had the SA 400m record for 20 years and it was eventually broken by Johan Oosthuizen and Jaco Reinach, father of Springbok and Sharks scrumhalf Cobus. I remember in later life, every second toe of his could not move as they had taken the tendon to make his Achilles stronger,” said Dave.
That was the end of Spence’s career as due to apartheid, South Africa was destined to only return to the Games in 1992, at Barcelona. That gave Spence the distinction of being the last South African track and field athlete to win an Olympic medal until Elana Meyer bagged silver in the women’s 10 000m at those 1992 Games.
Prior to his 1960 Olympic medal, Spence had won gold as part of the South African Empire and Commonwealth Games 4x400m team at Cardiff, where he also took silver in the individual 400m behind India’s Milkha Singh.
Spence, who had a milling farm at Baynesfield, died at age 73 in December 2010 in Howick.