Back home, blacks still running behind

AN END TO OLYMPIC EXILE

July 17, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Staff Writer

GERMISTON, South Africa -- South Africa has come a long way since marathon runner Abel Mokibe was born 27 years ago.

That was back in the grimmest days of apartheid, when it was inconceivable that anyone his color would compete in the Olympics on a South African team. Or that South Africa would compete, for that matter. Because of its apartheid policies, the country had been banned from the Olympics since 1960.

Now, Mokibe is one of 10 black athletes on a team of 97 who will compete for South Africa when it returns to the Olympics this month in Barcelona, Spain.

Olympic officials prohibited South Africa from entering the Games after 1960, then officially kicked the country out of the Olympics in 1970. The country's status changed last year after a panel from the International Olympic Committee visited South Africa and determined that there had been enough reform under President F.W. de Klerk to invite it back.

But South Africa hasn't come as far as Mokibe's appearance under the nation's banner might lead people to believe.

The country and its black athletes still live with what's left of the spirit of apartheid.

Color barriers still stand

Only this month, three black marathoners were turned away from an apartment building in the coastal city of Durban, where they went to attend a training camp.

The white apartment manager brusquely informed the white coach, "I don't want that type here."

Asked if he meant blacks, the manager confirmed that he didn't allow blacks in his building.

"It might have changed in Johannesburg, but not in my flats," he told the group, which found accommodations elsewhere in the city. It was a sobering experience for a group preparing to represent its country in the world's greatest sports competition.

The makeup of the Olympic team reflects in a way the distance that South Africa still has to go. South Africa is more than 80 percent black, but most of the team is white because whites have better training, better facilities and more money to devote to sports, said Thulani Sibisa, one of two black coaches with the Olympic team.

"We haven't been part of sports in South Africa because of the apartheid system," he said. "All the time, the focus was on whites. They have the facilities and the training. They can afford to send their athletes to other countries to train."

No chance to develop

Mokibe himself is an example of the disparity. A small, wiry man who grew up in the poor black township of Tembisa, west of here, he is the son of a laborer and a cleaning lady. He grew up with no chance to develop his athletic talent. That only began to blossom after he got a job with a metal-works factory with an on-site gymnasium.

Hired as an electrician's apprentice in 1988 for the equivalent of $120 a week, he began running in provincial and national races for the newly formed athletics club of Scaw Metals Limited. The club was formed so that company employees could train and compete on an interracial basis, which was difficult to do otherwise.

"In those days, not many private clubs would take blacks," said Francisco Andre, an electrical engineer who helped to form the Scaw Metals club. "I had approached the white clubs, and blacks were not welcome. We had to create a club free from all that."

Andre, a runner himself and Mokibe's coach, said his young protege was not even a good runner at first, though he had been a township athlete, playing soccer and running in local black races.

"But it didn't take long before he was our best runner," said Andre. Last year, Mokibe was fifth in the national marathon with a time of 2 hours, 13 minutes after only six weeks of training. This year, he won with a time of 2:11:00.

His time is far off the world record of 2:06:49, and not even the fastest time recorded in South Africa. The record is held by another black marathoner on the Olympic team, Zithilele Sinque, 28, who won the 1986 national marathon in 2:08:00. He had retired from competition until South Africa was readmitted to the Olympics.

Opportunity at gold mines

Last year, when Sinque realized the new opportunity, he got a job at a gold mine with a good gym where he could train. Until recently, the gold mines were virtually the only places in South Africa that offered blacks good training facilities. Now, many private clubs admit blacks who can afford their fees, but often do not make them feel welcome. So the best places to train remain companies with in-house facilities.

Sinque finished second to Mokibe at the national championships in March, with a time of 2:11:47.

They are the country's best male runners, but two female runners are believed to be South Africa's best hope for Olympic medals. Both are white, Elana Meyer and Zola Pieterse. Meyer will compete in the 10,000 meters in Barcelona, and Pieterse, who ran for England in the 1980s as the teen-age Zola Budd, will compete in the 5,000.

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