Games of hype still signify hope BARCELONA '92

MIKE LITTWIN

July 26, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

BARCELONA SPAIN — BARCELONA, Spain -- In a little village far from here -- far from everywhere, actually -- the huts are made from mud and the roads from dirt, and the outside world is a place rarely visited.

Though they have no electricity in the village, there is, inevitably, at least one TV set. No place is that removed. And last night, if all went well, and it had to go well if there's any justice, the TV was hooked up to a car battery, allowing flickering images of far-off royalty and opera singers and Magic Johnson's smile to illuminate the night sky.

In the village, as in the rest of the world, they would have seen surreal visions of Hercules and sea monsters and other Disney-like wonders great and fantastic.

But nothing could be as impossibly imagined as seeing one of their own, Xolile Yawa, march under the newly designed Olympic flag of their newly considered country of South Africa.

"You can't understand how much this means," Yawa was saying the other day in the Olympic Village, where he could hardly believe he was standing. "It means so much to so many people."

Yawa is a 29-year-old black South African who will run in the 10,000 meters and who only occasionally allowed himself to believe this day would come.

Now, he believes more is possible. That's the point of the Olympics, I guess. They don't mean that much in themselves. Whatever their mythical origins, the Olympics -- the Summer Games, after all -- are little more than a made-for-TV event, sponsored by shoes and soft drinks. And what are the opening ceremonies if not the ultimate halftime show?

And yet, despite the commercialism and despite the schmaltz, the Olympics have come to mean more. Maybe this: They represent the world as it could be. In 1992, with Germany reunited, with the Soviet empire dissolved, with missiles beaten into plowshares, with apartheid an ugly memory, the world is a lot closer to what it could be.

That's why a great hand went up from the crowd when long-reviled South Africa marched into the stadium for the nation's first Olympic appearance since 1960.

The story isn't all happy, of course. There is yet much dying in South Africa (as in many other nations). There is not yet a franchise for black South Africans. Still, there is hope. There has to be hope because of what was and what it is now.

But the recent past is hardly forgotten. One of the coaches on the team once spent three nights in jail because, when training, he had forgotten his identity card. The great Sidney Maree was arrested once in a similar incident.

In 1973, South Africa officially integrated its track team. But, at a meet, the sprinters would run with an open lane dividing black from white. In the middle- and long-distance races, blacks and whites would run in separate heats.

Even today, there is one synthetic track open to 30 million blacks. And so there are only eight black athletes competing for South Africa. It isn't the past alone that haunts South Africa.

Yawa is one of the lucky ones. He always could run. Like many African blacks, he became a distance runner because it required little coaching and no equipment other than a pair of shoes. Out of high school, he was recruited to work for a gold mine, many of which sponsor athletic clubs that routinely exploit black recruits.

As a good student who could speak English, Yawa has landed a good job in personnel. And he runs. Always, he has run. But when he first came to the mine, he wasn't allowed to go into town.

"There were many obstacles," he will say, but he's careful when talking about those times. He feels it is dangerous still.

Because that danger exists and for a hundred other reasons, some wondered if world acceptance had come too cheaply. It is important to remember that the sports world isolated South Africa long before the real world summoned the same force of conscience.

For Yawa, the runner, the time must be now.

"This is the start of something," he said. "This shows that there is no going back. What is happening in South Africa is irreversible. We are in the world of nations again."

Nelson Mandela had said as recently as two weeks ago he thought the Olympic world had opened its arms to South Africa too soon. But the great man came here yesterday to give his blessing.

And so when the South Africans marched, black and white, they waved flags and flashed smiles and were thrilled to be a part of the show. A black athlete carried the flag. A black headed the delegation.

Much has changed. But this hasn't: Ultimately, the Olympics may be a show, but a show that matters.

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