LOS ANGELES -- Ruth Wysocki called it a step into the unknown.
Wysocki, a world-class middle-distance runner, had run hundreds of races in faraway places without incident.
BTC But in the fall of 1988, Wysocki and 16 other athletes and coaches participated in three unsanctioned meets in South Africa, risking lifetime suspensions by defying an international ban.
When they returned to the United States, they were slapped with suspensions ranging from two to 12 years by The Athletics Congress, the U.S. governing body of track and field. Wysocki, a 1984 Olympian at 800 and 1,500 meters, was given a four-year suspension.
After three years of appeals and hearings, Wysocki, who stunned favored Mary Decker by winning the 1,500 in the 1984 U.S. Olympic trials, became the first athlete to win reinstatement when TAC's executive committee voted last November to end her suspension on Jan. 1.
"If I had to do it again, I'd sit back and ask a few more questions," said Wysocki, 35. Because of its apartheid policy -- since dropped -- South Africa was banned from the Olympics in 1964, was expelled from the International Olympic Committee in 1970 and the International Amateur Athletic Federation, which oversees world track and field, in 1976.
The IAAF voted in January to postpone South Africa's readmittance until its three governing bodies of track and field unite. The subject was not addressed at the IAAF's meeting in March. In the meantime, TAC and IAAF rules continue to prohibit athletes from competing in South Africa.
"I knew there was a possibility of suspension," Wysocki said of the '88 trip. "But in this particular case, the rules were vague. It wasn't black and white like drug rules -- that if you did this, this will happen. It was kind of a gray area. If you asked 10 people on the street at that time, you would get eight different answers."
Wysocki's application for reinstatement was rejected in hearings 1989 and 1990 before it was accepted and her suspension was overturned.
Pole vaulter Anthony Curran and shot putter Gregg Tafralis, who competed in another series of meets in South Africa in 1989, were also recently reinstated. Curran became eligible Jan. 2 and Tafralis can resume competing in April.
"It's a relief," said Wysocki, who believes the suspensions were too severe when compared to the two-year suspension of sprinter Ben Johnson for steroid use, and the penalties other drug users have drawn.
"There was so much red tape because I was the first and they were concerned about future appeals," she said. "I had to deal with so many different boards and personnel, it's hard to remember all of them. I needed a score book."
Most of the athletes who went to South Africa received $10,000 to $35,000 a meet, plus bonuses for breaking South African records. Wysocki said, however, that money was not her main reason for going.
"I had to see the whole thing for myself," she said. "I saw some good things. There were problems but they were not as widespread as I thought. It was a statement by going there that it was not fair, not allowing [South Africans] to compete. Governments shouldn't have control of what we do as athletes because it has no affect on them."
Wysocki, however, believes that the tour did have a positive effect on South African athletes.
"There were girls who had competed only against each other for nine years," Wysocki said. "It's like the Rams playing the Raiders every week. After a while, it gets pretty boring. The athletes were appreciative to see some new blood. Everybody was really happy and thankful."
Before the trip, Wysocki, had planned on competing at least through 1989 and did not expect to be suspended for longer than a year. The four-year suspension hit her hard.
"I kept up hope for a while but then retirement started to become appealing," Wysocki said. "I used to read results of a meet and think that 'I could have done that.' Other times, I'd go to a meet and see the runners and how nerve-racking it was. That was something I didn't miss."
Wysocki, the mother of an 18-month-old son, coached cross country at Temecula Valley (Calif.) High last fall.
In her first competition since her reinstatement, Wysocki placed fifth, in 35 minutes, 15 seconds, in the Redondo Beach Super Bowl Sunday 10K, Jan. 26.
"I had no idea where I was physically and was trying not to expect too much," she said. "I'm happy where I'm at and how my training is going."
She was recently reunited with longtime coach Vince O'Boyle, track and field coach at California-Irvine, in preparation for the Olympic trials in June. She will focus on the 1,500 and 3,000 meters. Wysocki finished fourth and sixth in those events in the 1988 trials.
"We're going to crank it up one more time and try to put together one more campaign," said O'Boyle, Wysocki's coach of 18 years.
"I think everybody has written her off and isn't expecting much. What she ran [at Redondo Beach] was not much different than she ran there in 1984. It gives me a good idea that she is in pretty good shape."
Wysocki had come out of a three-year retirement six months before the 1984 trials. In the 1,500 final, she knocked more than 12 seconds off her personal best time and upset Decker in 4:00.18. It was Decker's first defeat by an American in five years.
Wysocki's time is second on the all-time U.S. list. She had not
run faster than 4:16.0 before 1984.