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20 Jul 1908
London 1908

African trailblazer Walker sprints to glory

Sending a huge delegation of athletes overseas 107 years ago was not straightforward. And while participation numbers in London were up on 1904, it was still an issue.The case of South African teenager Reggie Walker, who was just 19 when he competed in London, was a high-profile one. He was his country’s reigning 100m champion, a feat achieved while working as a bank clerk, but was not expected to make a huge impact at the Olympics. No African had yet won a medal at a Games, and Walker almost missed out on the chance to have a go himself.

Walker had been recommended for the South African team in May 1908, but did not have the money to fund his own journey to England, having been left out of the government’s selection of funded athletes amid doubts about his level of experience. He was assisted by a local sportswriter in Natal, Jim Wallace, who was well aware of his potential and highlighted Walker’s plight in his newspaper column, quickly harnessing enough public goodwill to raise the funds that sent the youngster to his first Olympics through a series of charitable events.

A relative unknown in what was one of these Games’ more international-looking fields, Walker won his first 100m heat on 20 July in 11 seconds, finishing as the joint second-fastest runner among the 17 races. Plenty had heard of him by the time his semi-final was over – his 10.8-second finish, achieved after he had edged ahead at the halfway stage to win by a yard, tied the Olympic record that James Rector had equalled in the first heat.

Walker against Rector, who ran his semi-final in another 10.8 seconds, looked like the biggest showdown in the final, which was contested at 4.15pm on July 22. Rector edged ahead of him on halfway but then, as the Official Record takes up the story: “Walker spurted magnificently, got level with Rector, ran level for some six yards, and then shot ahead and won by over three feet.” Remarkably, he had again won in 10.8 seconds.

He was treated like a hero by the home crowd, and carried shoulder high around the stadium. The British media lamented that their own country could not produce a sprinter of Walker’s quality, and his performance was widely acknowledge as the best and most startling feat of the summer’s athletics.
Walker remained in Britain for another two months, paraded around the country to participate in a range of different events. He turned professional after returning home and but it was not a decision that served him well and, by 1913, he had effectively retired from the sport.

Aged 19 years and 128 days, Walker had become the youngest winner of the Olympic 100m and holds that accolade to this day. Just as significantly, he was Africa’s first medal-winner at the Games; Charles Hefferon would become the second when finishing second in the marathon two days later. It was another example of the way in which London 1908 provided watershed moments for different nationalities, races and genders. “I think we have done something for athletics of every kind and description,” said Lord Desborough at the Games’ closing banquet on 31 October, and it seemed that he was right – a sense of possibility had been ignited.

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