Petranoff chose exile in S. Africa U.S. athlete hopes banishment is lifted

July 13, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

LOS ANGELES N — LOS ANGELES -- Two-time Olympian Tom Petranoff remains an athlete in exile.

Petranoff is a United States citizen living in South Africa. He is a javelin thrower who chose to make a political statement by competing there and who then made South Africa his adopted homeland while waiting for an alphabet-soup collection of organizations to clear his name and set him free to compete internationally.

The readmission of South Africa to the Olympic community this week only served to spotlight individuals like Petranoff, caught between international affairs and affairs of the heart.

"In this whole thing, my whole statement has been basically that I just wanted to compete and I didn't want to get in the politics of the thing," Petranoff said yesterday from his home in Johannesburg.

South Africa's readmission to the International Olympic Committee moved Petranoff one step closer to gaining entry to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. But like his adopted homeland, he still must negotiate a tricky path to reinstatement.

"Everyone is cautiously enthusiastic," said Petranoff, who is working toward becoming a South African citizen. "Everyone has gotten really excited with all the changes in the past week."

After competing for the United States at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, Petranoff was one of 14 American athletes who participated in four track events in South Africa. Because he violated the international sporting ban of South Africa -- a country with an apartheid policy -- Petranoff was banished from international competition for six years by The Athletics Congress.

Instead of fighting the suspension, Petranoff decided to stay in South Africa. He said he liked the country and now has a wife and three children there.

"I've paid my dues," Petranoff said. "I've served more than three years. I never wanted to rock the boat. I made a statement that sportsmen shouldn't be used as political pawns in the governments' Mickey Mouse games of politics."

But now Petranoff must play a political game.

TAC is unlikely to grant Petranoff amnesty until the International Amateur Athletics Federation, track's ruling body, readmits South Africa.

The U.S. Olympic Committee may also act on its own to grant the athletes amnesty. The executive board will discuss the issue at a meeting today.

"Personally, it would seem to me that the executive committee should re-evaluate that rule and put it behind us," USOC president Robert Helmick said yesterday.

Meanwhile, Petranoff waits. He remains in peak form. Earlier this year in a domestic meet in South Africa, he threw the javelin 292 feet, 6 inches, surpassing his American record of 280-1.

"I'm ready to come out as soon as they're willing to let us go," he said. "So much has happened in the last few months. Everyone wants to just keep the wheel going in the right course."

Petranoff said it is unlikely that South African athletes will appear at the World Championships in Tokyo in August. He said bureaucratic changes must still be made to integrate South Africa's governing body of track and field.

"To be at the world championships would be wishful thinking," he said. "It would be nice, but whether that turns into reality remains to be seen. I think all of us want to put it in the past and concentrate on the future. I just don't think Tokyo is realistic. Barcelona is much more realistic."

Petranoff said his goal is not to represent a country. He simply wants to compete.

"I love the United States," he said. "I was born and raised there. I don't look at it if it would be better as an American or a South African. I don't think politics should have anything to do with sports."

"We shouldn't dwell on the past," he added. "The International Olympic Committee has made it perfectly clear the train has left the station and whoever is not on the train will be left behind."

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