S. African-born Maree is divided by love, anger But runner won't 'betray' America

July 18, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

LOS ANGELES -- Listen to Sydney Maree talk of South Africa, and you hear a man speak with love and anger.

On the one hand, he is overjoyed that South Africa has been invited to compete in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain. On the other, he wonders whether all the barriers of apartheid can be quickly dismantled. He is delighted for the athletes. He is wary of the politicians. The issues of black and white are not so easily resolved.

"It will be a very touching moment to see South Africans in the Olympic Games," he said. "It will be very difficult to find a dry spot on my face."

Maree is a U.S. citizen now, with a home on the Main Line of Philadelphia and a public relations job in New York and a running career that takes him around the world. He is here to compete in the 5,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Festival. But in his heart, he says, he remains the child who ran his way out of the Atteridgeville township on the outskirts of Pretoria.

In 1992, he wants to run for the United States at the Olympics. He'll be 35 years old then, two years removed from a damaged hip flexor. Only a plea from his mother, Susan, who lives near Pretoria, would get him to consider returning home to compete for South Africa. But he would have to renounce his U.S. citizenship. And that he could not do.

"I feel like it would be an act of betrayal," he said. "When I needed America most, it embraced me. I feel it is only fair that I don't turn my back."

America was a promised land for Maree. He was raised in Atteridgeville, a place he said "wasn't very conducive to creating a full human being out of anyone."

"As in all circumstances, there are those who make it through circumstances," he said. "You get through the cracks."

Maree's speed made him special. In 1976, he ran the mile in 3 minutes, 57.9 seconds, beating a white South African named Clive Dale at the main stadium in Pretoria. Maree remembers that night vividly. He saw a shadow on the track and thought Dale was gaining on him. He heard the crowd scream, so he put his head down and sprinted to the tape. Only later did Maree realize that Dale was far behind, and that the crowd was cheering for a sub-4-minute mile.

Running away from his shadow helped Maree become South Africa's Junior Black Sportsmen of the Year. He earned a two-month vacation to the United States and wound up enrolling at Villanova University in Philadelphia.

After years of living under apartheid, following rules that separated races, he was shocked by his new life in America. Maree had a white roommate, and some nights he would watch the man sleep.

"I did not have the opportunity to see white people," he said. "I studied my roommate to see white people. I wanted to see how they behaved, to see that they snored and slept just like other people."

Maree could freely compete in the United States. But because he was a South African, he was shunned at some international meets. His predicament often made him furious.

In 1979, he was set to run in a meet in Lausanne, Switzerland, but the invitation was withdrawn at the last minute when Steve Ovett entered the mile. Maree changed his plane ticket, flying home to South Africa.

"I went to the luggage department to get my things and a woman said: 'Excuse me, you people are on that side. Not this side,' " he said. "I felt the world had ostracized me because I was a South African and in South Africa I was ostracized because I was black. I would never wish what happened on me to anyone else. It broke me, and it built me."

Maree said a new South Africa can be built with the aid of sports. He doesn't say that the violence of blacks against blacks will disappear, or that whites will immediately embrace blacks after the country's unified appearance in Barcelona.

"We have to be realistic," he said. "Life has not changed for the average person in South Africa. Maybe the athletes now see the significance of South Africa being invited to the Olympics."

Maree isn't sure how he would react if black South Africans are able to compete in the Olympics but are unable to vote in their country. Yet he is hopeful that the nation's sporting bodies will be integrated quickly. For Maree, the Olympics represent a start for a country attempting to break from its past.

"The black population has never felt so positive of victory," he said. "The whites have never felt so uncertain. If they truly believe in a new South Africa, all effort will be made for all the people."

And Maree will make every effort to be there in Barcelona.

"I feel if I ever have to write a book for my career, the final chapter will not be there unless I step on that podium as an Olympic champion," he said. "I have moved many mountains. There are no obstacles in my way."

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