TUG-OF-WAR IN SOUTH AFRICA

Author: Anton Botha

Tug-of-War in South Africa has a very proud history and is arguably one of the oldest sports in South Africa – the others being “Jukskei” and “Lintonga”. The first mention of Tug-of-War in South Africa stems from a diary entry of one of the pioneers who opened up the interior of South Africa. The diary entry mentions a sports day in which tug-of-war was a main attraction – this event occurred on Saturday 5 November 1836 close to the present-day town of Heidelberg in the Gauteng province.

During the 19th century, several mentions of the sport are made in the history books. The dockyard workers, railway workers, and especially farmers kept the sport alive. The first mention of a school practicing the sport was in the 1896 “Cape Argus” newspaper mentioning a tug-of-war competition at the then Stellenbosch Gymnasium (currently Paul Roos Gymnasium). Stellenbosch and nearby Paarl became mainstays of the sport – at the annual sports festival at “Die Braak” in Stellenbosch, instituted in 1866, tug-of-war became one of the most popular sports.

On 26 December 1897, the annual Boxing Day sports festival was instituted in Paarl, a rural town close to Cape Town. Tug-of-War became one of the highlights of this event with teams like the Boilermakers from the Salt River locomotion works, the Railway Police, and later the Goudini farmers, becoming legendary teams. On 31 August 1904, at the Olympic Games held in St Louis USA, Tug-of-War became the first team sport that South Africa participated in at an Olympic Games. South Africa obtained a very credible 5th place – USA, interestingly, taking the first three places.

During the 20th century, tug-of-war continued to grow and spread throughout South Africa. It gained popularity in the military as well as the police forces and annual “combined services” competitions were the order of the day. In 1971 the SA Tug-of-War Federation was established. Established in the so-called “apartheid era” in South Africa, it is noteworthy that SA Tug-of-War was non-racial since its inception – a fact that was transparent in its composition of both provincial and national teams during those tumultuous times. Sadly, however, SA Tug-of-War experienced a decline in several athletes and in the number of clubs at the turn of the 20th century. With the numbers reaching a new low in 2006, a development plan, the so-called “Adopt-a-School” project was instituted to ensure a sustainable injection of youth into the sport in order to ensure growth in the future. Slowly but surely this intervention started to bear fruit – growth was slow at first, but it continued to build momentum.

This past year, the Junior Association established its 100th junior (school) club and the momentum is continuing to build. Similarly, new senior clubs are formed and rejuvenated by the youth coming through the proverbial “ranks”. Currently, there are 31 senior clubs in South Africa – a much better situation than the 6 clubs we had in 2006. Since 1971, South Africa had the honour of hosting the Tug-of-War World Championships five times – most recently in 2018. Currently, South Africa is in the planning phase to host the 2026 World Championships in Mossel Bay. Whilst the 2026 planning is underway, the long-term “strategic plan” is to host the 2036 World Championships, when South Africa will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Tug-of-War sport in South Africa. The future looks bright!

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