Sportsmanship and chivalry have been ever present virtues since the modern Olympic movement started. The adage that says taking part outweighs the merits of winning was never more appropriate than when applied to the conduct of South African sprint hurdler George Weightman-Smith.
Weightman-Smith, one of only 27 athletes who made the trip from South Africa to the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, shaved two tenths of a second from the world record in a dominant performance in the semi-finals.
Believing he had achieved all one could expect from an athlete, Weightman-Smith, under a ruling that would not be allowed today, opted to give his team-mate Sydney Atkinson his lane for the final in order to give his countryman a better chance of success.
Atkinson himself had come agonisingly close to Olympic glory four years earlier in Paris.
However in a turn of events reminiscent of Gail Devers’ last hurdle fall at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Atkinson faltered with victory within his grasp.
Like Devers, Atkinson clipped the final hurdle when he was marginally in the lead, bur unlike the American he managed to stay on his feet and win the silver medal.
Atkinson was not among the favourites as the athletes descended into the blocks. He finished second in his heat and in the semi-final with a trio of powerful Americans – Steve Anderson, John Collier and Leighton Dye – ready to pounce.
However Atkinson made the perfect start in lane three and never looked like being headed. He won in a time of 14.8 secs with the Americans threesome filling the next places.
It remains the only time an African runner has won the event and there would be a 48-year wait for the next time a non-American won the 110 hurdles when Frenchman Guy Drut took gold at the 1976 Games in Montreal.