S. Africa proves sports are power in the real world

MIKE LITTWIN

July 11, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

South Africa is re-entering the community of nations. You know it's official not because the United States is lifting economic sanctions but because the International Olympic Committee has voted unanimously to allow South Africa to compete in the 1992 Olympics.

That says much about the power of sports. They are more than just an entertainment, more than Cal Ripken hitting a home run in the All-Star Game, more even than working-class Wimbledon fans doing the wave at Centre Court. Sports have their own kind of glory, of course, but there is the real world, too. And in the real world, sports can matter.

We think of Jackie Robinson, whose name belongs alongside Martin Luther King Jr.'s and Thurgood Marshall's in advancing the cause of integration. And all because he was the first black player in modern major-league baseball. Just that. Just seeing him on the field competing with such passion and grace in what had been an all-white environment became a psychic symbol for America. He didn't save our souls, but simply by swinging a bat, he nudged them awake.

Sports can be a weapon, too, as they were in the 1980 Moscow Olympics (boycotted by the United States and its allies because of the Afghanistan invasion) or the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (boycotted by the Soviet Union and its allies in retaliation). Olympic teams were substituted for armies. The late and unlamented East Germany used sports as the basis for its foreign policy, its athletes ambassadors for a country many refused to recognize.

In the singular case of South Africa, sports were used both as weapon and symbol. What more important symbol could there be than exclusion from the Olympics, which serve, more effectively than the United Nations, as the world's gathering place? The Olympics are a celebration of mankind, and when the South Africans were told, from as long ago as 1964, that they were not fit for decent company, the lesson was clear: Apartheid was so abominable, even in a world where abominations are commonplace, that South Africa must stand alone.

Sanctions would come later. From the world of sports, we learned about morality. The IOC forced South Africa to wear the scarlet "A" for apartheid.

Now, the walls of hate and fear are crumbling. In these extraordinary times, when Nelson Mandela walks with kings and apartheid is being dismantled, there come extraordinary responses. The unanimous vote of the IOC is perhaps the most dramatic of these.

But the questions must be asked: Why now? Why so soon? Why rush to include South Africa when the job is not yet done?

Blacks still do not have the vote in South Africa. Not all political prisoners are free. De facto discrimination remains rampant, even in the South African sporting world. There is much work to be done. Isn't there the danger that recognizing the great steps South Africa has made will only slow the progress?

What is pushing South Africa now? Where's the moral force? Where's the real pain that sanctions and exclusion can cause?

The African National Congress didn't want this action by the IOC. The president of Nigeria said it was premature. But all the black African nations on the committee voted to allow South Africa to compete.

Injustice is hardly unique to South Africa, of course. There are many countries that, if the Olympic charter were carefully enforced, would be ineligible. But what separated South Africa from your typical despotic nation -- say Albania -- was the institutionalized and unapologetic racism. This was Nazi Germany without the crematoriums. The IOC, when first excluding South Africa, did not act on some whim of political correctness. It was a just and powerful act.

Now, the story is coming to an end. Soon, we'll no longer hear about not playing Sun City, the resort town that lured many entertainers and athletes to South Africa with the promise of filthy lucre. There were heroes, including John McEnroe, who turned down a million dollars to go. Those who succumbed -- and there were many -- will be always remembered for their greed.

We'll no longer see Zola Budd (now Budd-Pieterse) pretending to be British so she could run in the Olympics. Or black South Africans like Sidney Maree caught in one of the great ironies of modern sport. Maree, now an American citizen, was not allowed to compete internationally because South Africa violated the rights of blacks, of which he was one.

Instead, the story turns to merging black South African interests with white interests. It turns to creating more opportunity for all. This may prove, as Jackie Robinson would, a model for progress throughout a nation that counts itself as sports mad. In a country still torn apart, there may be community found in a soccer or a rugby team.

Whether or not the IOC acted prematurely, it is clear that the message from the world community has gotten through. And so the fire this time in South Africa is an Olympic flame.

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