Erasing the borders

August 27, 2004|By Laura Hambleton

PRETORIA, South Africa - My sons picked up tennis this summer. The game follows a long line of sports they love and play, from soccer to baseball. As with each new pursuit, my boys hesitate at first until they've mastered even a small part of the drill. After that, they are passionate.

I accept this initial doubt. It was there when we moved to South Africa a year ago, especially with my 9-year-old son. He asked almost the entire year when we were moving back to America.

But in the last few days, his attitude changed. It happened when we switched on the Summer Olympics.

He and his 7-year-old brother - and their 12-year-old sister - punched the air and hugged one another when South Africa's swim team won a gold medal in the men's 400-meter relay. One swimmer, Roland Schoeman, is from Pretoria. My children consider him one of their own now, as they do Kristy Coventry from neighboring Zimbabwe and Maria Mutola, the runner from Mozambique.

For them, America almost has become just another country competing along the starting line.

That's how it has been in my household since the Olympics began. My children have set aside their nationalism and have reveled in the sheer sport of the games. Their motto: May the best athlete win, and may the power be behind the smaller countries.

Granted, they still are excited when Americans win. They hooted after American runners swept the men's 400-meter race.

I do wonder, some evenings, whether their perspectives are influenced by how the Games are presented here. South Africa's satellite TV stations devote six channels - commercial free - to the Olympics. This is the first time we have watched the full range of sports, unfiltered by a heavy-handed American perspective.

These Olympics mirror my children's experience of living overseas. Their view of the world and their place in it is broad. One American family I know in Pretoria watched the opening ceremonies with an atlas close at hand. The daughters had to find each country represented on the map.

In July, my children and I drove from Spain to France, crossing through the small border town of Irun, Spain. Years ago, that crossing had taken a professor friend of mine six hours. We passed through without a stop, without a question, in five minutes, paying a few euros and remembering to say merci instead of gracias upon arrival in Behobia, France.

Why aren't other borders like this, my children asked? By contrast, my 9-year-old recounted what he considered the unnecessary snags in driving from South Africa across borders into Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland.

My daughter, on the cusp of 13, remembers checkpoints and long border crossings when we lived in the Middle East until she was 7. She'd like to dismantle borders and differences all together.

This past April, her social studies class created their own societies and forms of government at an international school here. In her group she had a Muslim boy whose parents are from Pakistan and a Hindu girl whose parents are from India. The group was charged with creating a meal that everyone could eat. For cultural and religious reasons, the boy didn't eat pork; the girl didn't eat beef. They negotiated and found common ground in chicken.

More than lessons from the schoolyard, this is the world my children will inherit: a seamless place where they are confident their suitcase can be stashed in a prop plane on a small island in Thailand and arrive on time in Johannesburg - or a place where Roland Schoeman can swim for South Africa and train in America.

For a brief moment in these waning days of summer, the world on Olympic screens isn't divided. Border disputes, war in Iraq, bloodletting in Darfur, Sudan, seem absurd, especially when runners from two recent warring countries such as Ethiopia and Eritrea stand next to one another proudly as they accept their medals.

Laura Hambleton is a freelance journalist based in Pretoria, South Africa.

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