The ultimate champions of field and track, by Waihiga Mwaura
1 Gary Player
Golf, South Africa
• Champion on the Regular Tour
• Tour Major Champion
• Senior British Open Champion
• South Africa Sportsman of the Century
• Bob Jones Award from United States Golf Association
• World Golf Hall of Fame
One of the ways to judge a successful sportsman is to gauge how far he has travelled while participating in international competitions. In the world of golf South Africa’s Gary Player stands unrivalled, having logged more than 25 million kilometres. As with many sports success stories it was Gary’s father who introduced him to golf at the age of 14. Three years later Gary vowed he would become World Number 1. He came close and is widely regarded as one of the greatest golfers of all-time, ranking third, behind Roberto de Vicenzo and Sam Snead in total professional wins. Player is the only non-American to win the golf Grand Slam – all four majors. Through his company, Gary Player Design, he has designed over 300 golf courses in 35 countries across five continents.
2 George Weah
• FIFA Player of the Year
• European Player of the Year
• African Player of the Century
• African Footballer of the Year
• Top 125 Greatest Living Footballers
A football analyst once noted that if you were to list Africa’s greatest footballers then George Weah’s name would have to be at the top followed by a new list of all the others. The 47-year-old is a true example of how sport can change lives. His football talent enabled him to rise from the worst slums of Liberia to play for the biggest football teams in Europe including AC Milan and Chelsea – before he unsuccessfully took a stab at the Presidency in 2005. “King” George is the only African to win the European Player of the Year award and he also bagged FIFA Player of the Year in 1995. The devoted humanitarian is a former UNICEF goodwill ambassador.
3 Haile Gebrselassie
• Olympic Gold Medallist
• World Champion
• Berlin Marathon Champion
• Dubai Marathon Champion
• World Indoor Champion
• Broke 61 Ethiopian Records
The name Haile means “my power” and that power it seems is what has made Gebrselassie the terror of all long distance athletes since 1992. Standing at a diminutive 5ft 5”, and rarely peaking over 60kg, the Ethiopian is never far from any list of Africa’s greatest athletes, despite his battle with asthma. It is said that he honed his skills running 10 kilometres to school and back every day. It’s no wonder his running style favours his left side because that is how he used to carry his books. The 40-year-old continues to run, most recently participating in the 2014 London Marathon as a pacemaker at a time when most of his compatriots have retired.
4 Maria Mutola
• Olympic Gold Medallist
• World Champion
• World Indoor Champion
• Commonwealth Gold Medalist
Maria Mutola’s accomplishments make her not just one of Africa’s but one of the world’s greatest athletes. Her dominance in the 800m allowed her to compete in six Olympic events and led to her being called the Maputo Express. Her first love was football, but at the age of 15 she was persuaded to take up athletics – going on to become the national record holder for women in every distance from 400m to 3000m. In 2003 she emerged unbeaten in the IAAF Diamond League. She retired in 2008 after 21 years of athletics and returned to playing football for South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns. In 2011, she was captain of the Mozambique national soccer team at that All-Africa Games before she coached SA runner Caster Semenya to a silver medal at London 2012. She was appointed an Honorary United Nations Youth Ambassador in 2003 in recognition of her outstanding athletic achievements.
5 Perpetua Nkwocha
• Nigeria Women’s Football Captain
• African Woman Footballer of the Year
• Women’s African Football Championship winner
• Only African woman to be listed in FIFA World XI
One of the earliest signs of a great female footballer is her ability to play competitive football with men. That is where Perpetua’s career started off and with time her talent enabled her to join the national team and eventually become the captain. Probably the biggest highlight of her career was scoring four goals for the Super Falcons against Cameroon in the 2004 African Women’s Championship final. Nkwocha was named player of the tournament and was the competition’s top scorer with nine goals. She repeated the latter feat in the 2006 edition, where she topped the scoring charts with seven goals. Her talent goes beyond the African continent, playing for a Danish professional side. FIFA named her as one of the world’s best 11 women football players. The two-time African Woman Footballer of the Year plans to go into coaching on her retirement.
6 Tirunesh Dibaba
• Olympic Gold Medalist
• World Champion
• African Champion
• 5000m World Record Holder
• IAAF Female Performance of the Year Award
Tirunesh Dibaba’s exotic beauty can easily fool you into believing that she is just a pretty face. It’s only when you watch her charge unopposed to the finish line in an international competition that you realise just how devastating her sprint finish is. The “baby faced destroyer” from Ethiopia was raised in the high-altitude Arsi zone of the Oromia region – which could be one of the reasons why Tirunesh, along with her two sisters, brother and even a cousin are all formidable athletes. Dibaba bagged two gold medals in the Beijing Olympics and also became the first woman to retain an Olympic 10,000m title in 2012. In addition, Dibaba has won four world championship golds and has also claimed the coveted world cross-country title on four occasions, beating the best that Ethiopia’s great rival Kenya could produce. Tirunesh hopes eventually to move to the marathon in 2016.
7 Hakeem Olajuwon
• NBA All-Star
• NBA Most Valuable Player
• NBA Champion
• ALL-NBA First Team
• Defensive Player of the Year
• Basketball Hall of Fame
An athlete begins to be immortalised only when he is given a name that resonates with his skill. For Hakeem Abdul Olajuwon, “The Dream” was the only way to summarise his grace on and off the court. Olajuwon which means, “always on top” in Nigeria’s Yoruba language started playing basketball at the late age of 15, but easily picked up the sport. Basketball led him to the United States where from 1984 to 2002 he played the centre position in the NBA for the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors. Standing at 7 feet tall and weighing 116kg, Hakeem was known for his trademark ‘dream shake’ – a perfected set of fakes and spin moves that led him to earn respect from none other than the great Michael Jordan. For Olajuwon basketball was a science and only brilliant minds could master it. The devout Muslim is now a successful real estate dealer and NBA instructor.
8 Jacques Kallis
Cricket, South Africa
First and only player in cricket history to achieve 10,000 runs and 200 wickets in tests and one-day internationals Jacques Kallis is the broad-shouldered colossus of the South African team, a figure whose looming presence inspires calm in teammates and dread in opponents. Having started playing cricket at high school, Kallis’ breakthrough came in 1997 with 61 against Pakistan, but more notably two matches later when he salvaged a draw for South Africa with a fighting century against Australia at the Melbourne cricket ground. The son of Cape Town remained a permanent member of the South African team through hard times involving match fixing and a poor display at home in the World Cup. Undoubtedly he remains the most complete all-rounder of his time. No other player has fused batting and bowling ability and performed so consistently for a decade and a half in multiple forms of the game. He decided to retire from test cricket in 2013.
9 Paul Tergat
• World Half Marathon Champion
• World Cross Country Champion
• IOC Member
• Abebe Bikila Award Winner
• Goodwill Ambassador UN World Food Programme
• Johnny Walker Ambassador
Paul Kibii Tergat was – with the single exception of his friend Haile Gebrselassie – the most dominant distance runner of the mid- to late-1990s. Tergat won five straight IAAF World Cross Country Championships titles, 1995 to 1999, which was a record. His intense rivalry with his friend Haile came into focus in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and 2000 Sydney Olympics, but in both instances the Ethiopian was quicker by a slim margin. Tergat later transitioned to full marathons, finishing second in his first three marathons and even setting a new record of 2 hours 4 minutes and 55 seconds, which was later broken by Haile Gebreselassie. ‘The Gentleman’ is a fitting nickname for this tall, slender athlete who nowadays spends most of his time running the Paul Tergat Foundation and the Soya Sports Awards event in Kenya.
10 Chad Le Clos
Swimming, South Africa
• 200m Butterfly World Record Holder
• 50m & 100m Butterfly Commonwealth Record Holder
• Swimming World Cup Champion
• 200m Butterfly Olympic Gold Medallist
Chad Guy Bertrand le Clos is the youngest sportsman on our Top 10 list and he makes it there by virtue of the fact that he has challenged the swimming hierarchy in such a short time. The 21-year-old started swimming at the age of 10 and he lists Michael Phelps – the most decorated Olympian of all time – as his sporting hero. As fate would have it, Le Clos was privileged enough to beat his hero in the 200m butterfly at the 2012 London Olympics by 0.05 seconds. Probably the best swimmer in the world, Le Clos published a book in April 2014 called Unbelievable where he talks about family, values and perseverance on the road to Olympic glory. His next goal is to break one of Michael Phelps’ world long course records at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland.