For S. African yachtsmen, finally, it's clear sailing

AN END TO OLYMPIC EXILE

July 17, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- Bruce Savage was exiled for life. He could win club titles, but never international medals. He could sail the Indian Ocean, as bright and blue and gorgeous as any sea in the world, but he never could go beyond the horizon.

Until now.

The water may be polluted, the weather uncertain, the medal possibilities remote. No matter.

Savage is here. And so is South Africa, a country whose 32-year banishment from the Olympics will end during the July 25 Opening Ceremonies of the 1992 Summer Games.

"When I first heard we were going to the Olympics, I was extremely skeptical," Savage said. "I had been disappointed throughout my career. Invitations canceled at the last minute. Applications to race denied. We had heard it all before. We had learned not to get our hopes up, because they always got dashed. But now that I'm here, I think it's fantastic. It hasn't even really sunk in yet."

Each ceremony brought new experiences. Sunday, Savage and six other sailors checked into the Olympic village, making a little history as South Africa's first athletes in Barcelona. They walked along a red carpet past a dozen Spaniards dressed in bellboy outfits. They stowed their gear. They saw the Mediterranean.

Monday, they took their boats in the water, avoiding floating plastic bottles, chunks of wood and gobs of unidentifiable goo.

They had come a long way, from places such as Durban, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. As whites, as children of the English-speaking upper class, they enjoyed every privilege their country offered. But until the veil of apartheid was lifted from South Africa, they were destined for careers of chasing club regatta championships.

"The sanctions were the least just for people like myself and, of course, the top black athletes," said Savage, 28, a soling class skipper. "Blacks have been the victims of the system, and yet they were suffering from the sanctions. I've always been opposed to apartheid, and yet I've suffered, too. You felt anger at the whole situation."

But the anger is receding for Savage and the others. They have been in Europe for five months, testing their talents against top sailors.

"It has been an eye-opener to see the world," said Ian Ainslie, a 27-year-old mathematics teacher who sails in the Finn class.

"I nearly didn't make it," he said. "Off and on for the last five months, I thought about quitting. I was running out of money."

But even as the yachtsmen chase after medals, they are constantly reminded of the violence and political instability that afflicts their country. When 42 blacks were killed in the township of Boipatong last month, South Africa nearly was expelled once again from the Olympics.

"For most whites, you can live without knowing these things are happening," Ainslie said.

Last year, Ainslie taught in the township of Umlazi. He was shocked by the lack of books, by the gaps in education that prevented students from solving the puzzles of math.

"To see those inequities was kind of scary," he said.

The recent violence, of course, was scarier still.

"I think it's a very precarious time for our country," Savage said. "I think it's hanging in the balance a bit. I do strongly believe there will be a government of the majority people in South Africa within the next few years. What happens between now and then will determine the state the country will be in. I have faith in the

long-term future."

Can the Olympics make a difference in a country trying to heal old wounds and create a new society?

"It might change things," Savage said. "Being in the Olympics could have a positive effect, especially with right-wing whites. It's like showing them the carrot, showing them what they've been missing out. It has been a stick for so long. I hate the fact that politics enters sports."

But during the Opening Ceremonies, Savage and his teammates will wear the new politics of their country on the sleeves of their sport coats. They'll march with either peace symbols or patches inscribed "Peace and Democracy."

"I don't think anyone should be forced to make a political statement," Savage said. "But I think peace and democracy are two very good ideals to advertise."

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