Skip to main content

What is your surname?"


"What is your purpose?"

"To visit Sydney Maree."

"When will you leave?"

"By two o'clock."

The policeman stamps the form: Permission is hereby granted to Mineer Smith to enter the Bantu Areas under the jurisdiction of the Board.

"Why do I have to do this?"

"Because some of the blacks don't like us whites. And some people want to come into the township and stir them up. It's these people we must watch, the people who don't belong. . . ."

June 1976. At 5 a.m., in the darkness, 19-year-old Sydney Maree jerked awake. He sat upright on the dining-room couch that was his bed and felt for his running clothes. It was winter in South Africa, and the thin blood of his heritage exaggerated the chill.

He stepped over a brother sleeping on the floor. A minor obstacle; two years before, all eight of them had been crushed in one rented bedroom—mother and stepfather and baby sister in the single bed, five boys on the cement floor around them. Their name had finally come up on the waiting list, and they had rented one of the four-room, 20' X 25' one-story brick boxes that line the dusty roads in the black townships of South Africa.

The boy rubbed his hands and slipped on his shorts and T shirt. Sometimes, in the dark shiver of mornings like these, he squeezed back tears. Why am I doing this to myself? he would ask. Never could he form an answer.

On this day he was nearly out the door when he remembered, and stopped. The police were on the streets of Atteridgeville, their breaths coming in slow and long plumes of vapor above the quick blasts of their German shepherds. The Soweto riot was a week old; like a fire whose only mind is wind, it had jumped and flared yesterday, seven days after the Soweto outburst and 45 miles away, on the fringes of Pretoria. His teachers had sent him home from his high school when the rocks had rained through the windows and the police had rushed in and the tear gas had stung, and he had run to the train station to travel the 40 km home, only to find the same smoking chaos there in Atteridgeville.

Maree sank back onto the couch. He couldn't run now, not when a streak of black flesh through the gray of the predawn could draw fangs or bullets, and so he waited. And slowly the sun found the orange asbestos roofs of Atteridgeville, and his family rose from their beds or floor mats, and his mother nodded yes, if he must run, it was light enough to do it now.

And out he ran, his nostrils filling with the coal smoke pouring from the chimneys of the houses without electricity, up the rust-red road, whose dust choked and blinded him whenever a car rumbled by, out past row after row of the red-brick boxes. Out he ran past the silent file of men and women in rumpled oversized clothes heading for the train to commute to the white man's city, the scared-dog subservience already settling over them for another day; out past the garbage in the streets, which the irritated roosters and hens clawed and pecked at and rejected; out past the suspicion of the staring police with their olive-green uniforms and the rosette of sunrise on the steel of their guns.

And out he ran past the last row of houses; past the graveyard of tortured car parts in the field; past the rubbish heap still smoking from yesterday's fire; past the fringe of the South African army's target-practice area, which would echo pop-pop-pops through Atteridgeville all day; past the sign that read THIS GROUND IS DANGEROUS, CONTAINING UNEXPLODED BOMBS, SHELLS AND CARTRIDGES. TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED. BY ORDER—OFFICER OF NORTHERN TRANSVAAL COMMAND, the sign standing right in the middle of a pathetic field of corn, because the slow death of hunger terrifies more than the quick death of the trampled shell.

And out he ran, coiling around the mountain on the rutted dirt road, through the Indian township of Laudium and then out past the barbed wire of the South African military compound where the soldiers marched the black and colored prisoners along the roadside every morning at seven and the white people came on Saturdays to rent the prisoners for yard labor.

And out he ran, wondering why he ran and never knowing, unable to picture any prize at the end of the pain, scared of running past the police but scared even more of not running at all. And out he ran. . . .

He is 26 years old now, a man whose life has been like one long tautening of strap that could slingshot him past Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett and whatever other challengers might appear in the 1984 Olympic 1,500-meter run. His documents say that he was a South African for the first 25 years of his life; by next April his passport will call him an American. Maree is searching for some deeper definition.

It is a 75° pearl of an African April day, and Maree is driving his Avis BMW 735i over dirt roads, looking for the patch of farmland an hour's drive from Pretoria where he spent his first 11 years. The land is beautiful, but the homes of the black farm laborers are scabs upon its rolling back. He pulls into the front yard of a family that was an old and forgotten neighbor to ask directions to what once was the Maree plot.

Five women, starch-fat, sit in the shade in front of a mud shack, on a rusted boxspring. A little way from them sits an old man minus a leg; in front of him is a mug of home-brew beer that is the same color and consistency it will be when it comes back up. One woman picks at her legs with scissors. A dog sniffs Maree, decides he isn't food and then returns to the shade to let the flies settle in the valleys between his ribs. A drought has made them all idle and hungry and touchy, and the BMW with the well-dressed black driver and the white passenger happens upon them like a hallucination.

The passenger studies Maree's face to see if he can still identify with the hot, hopeless, home-brew-stinking horror of his birthplace, and sees nothing. Are they any more real to him than he is to them? Suddenly, on the burnt-waffle face of a woman whose body and head are wrapped in black, comes the light of recognition. There are very few heroes for these people to confuse.

"Are you Sydney Maree, the great runner?" she blurts.

He nods.

She waves at her mud shack and cries, "Then jump over my house!"

He laughs and gets directions, and the hallucination rolls in reverse out of the yard. Maree drives down a one-lane road and points to the neat white homes of the white farm managers, lovely against the rolling backdrop of fields and trees. "Why can't I buy a piece of land like that and build a nice home on it?" he asks. "Mike Boit has a farm in Kenya, but we can't do that here in South Africa. I'm stuck with rebuilding my mother's home in Atteridgeville."

He waves toward one of the tin shacks, rocks pinning down its roof, that stands a proper distance from the white house with the tidy garden. "Our old house is gone now. When we lived here," he says almost casually, "we lived in a house like that. . . ."

It was in that long-gone house, in this rural town named Onverwacht—in English, "Unexpected"—on a September day in 1956, that the first of Susan Maree's six children was born. Three months later the father would vanish. The mother and son lived with her parents in a house full of her sisters. The feminine influence on the boy would always be strong, obvious later in the caring way he did housework and cradled babies. His mother would spit on the floor and tell him that before the saliva dried, he must be back with bread or sugar from the store, three kilometers away. He could do that easily, and so his aunt made the challenge even harder by spitting on a rock in the sun. Young Maree hated to feel the scorch of others' anger, and so he dashed off barefoot past the onion and tomato fields, hopping to avoid the thorns and always making it back before the rock had dried. Running was a way of life, not a way out of it.

His grandparents died, and one day a land-hungry white farmer came with the promise of cash if Susan Maree and her sisters would move. They could see no alternative. Susan found work as a house servant in Pretoria, making the equivalent of $18 a month, but could not keep her family with her. She left the two sons she had then with her brother's mother-in-law, a woman living in a rural black township named Hammanskraal. Each day, when 12-year-old Sydney came home from school, the brother's mother-in-law ordered him to tend to the goats, to wash and iron his shirt, to walk a mile to fetch water in a bucket for the vegetable garden and bring it back balanced on his head and to clean the outhouse, where his breath caught every time he stared down the hole and saw the worms. There was no time for play. "If you want to leave," the old woman would say, "leave."

He did his chores quietly, hoarding all his feelings, and when his mother visited once a month he sobbed into her lap.

His sense of not belonging was almost too much to bear. He didn't belong to a father, and his family was split and scattered. He didn't belong to any group of friends. He didn't belong to a tribe, which at least lent some stunted version of pride to the Zulus on South Africa's East Coast. And already, at age 12, a dim awareness was growing that he didn't even belong to this country.

He only felt belonging in the few moments he spent in his mother's lap, and he was in a quiet agony to feel it more. She stroked his head when he cried and cooed, "Do not worry, son, you will be big one day and we will live in a house together. God is great. It will be nice one day." She was relieved he didn't ask her for evidence.

The BMW stops at his old high school, just past the featureless cement building built for the white teachers to run to and lock themselves into the next time black frustration brims. Three girls see him and run to a garden to pick a red rose and a purple orchid, and they hand the flowers to him with a note that reads "Sydney, we are proud of you." He beams.

Class changes and 40 children stampede him when they see he is being photographed. The school gardener shoos them with the branch he uses for a rake, and Maree smiles and cries, "Look what they've done to my shoes!" Twenty-eight children in one class sign their names to a heart-shaped note that says, "We love you, Sydney Maree."

In the whirl of spontaneous worship, a black boy who runs the 800 meters in bare feet approaches Maree. "Sydney, I run too," the boy says. "But I have a weakness. I get discouraged when there is pain."

"You must remember your opponents are human too," Maree says. "When you are feeling pain, they are too. And that will help you push a little harder. You must learn to enjoy pain."

The boy nods. "I feel I'm on the path of Sydney Maree," he says, "since I too go to Vlakfontein Technical High School. Every time I run I think, 'What would Sydney Maree be thinking now?' Before I go to sleep I read articles about him. We blacks in South Africa lack persistence and determination. We say, 'Oh, we are beaten.' Sydney Maree doesn't know when he's beaten. And the teachers here keep telling us he was just a kid like us. . . ."

Montsho! Montsho!" the other boys called mockingly to young Maree. In Sotho, the language most blacks in Atteridgeville speak, the word means "black boy."

In the confused values of a people oppressed, there was—and still is—a hierarchy among blacks and colored according to the shade of one's skin. In the complete collapse of self-esteem and heritage, the women of his town caked white skin-lightening cream on their faces and walked the streets with the ghostly look of full moons in mist. To be lighter was to be better—and Maree, despite white blood in his ancestry that officially designated him as "colored," was a deep and polished ebony.

"Montsho!" the boys shouted, and he would run into his house and stay there. Confrontation made him tremble. "I was a coward," he says. "I was a mama's boy. 'Are you scared of your mother?' they would say to me. I only came out to run and to do sit-ups on the front steps."

His teacher in grade school took one look at his ostrich calves and eliminated him from consideration for the track team. "He was so skinny I was afraid he might be ill," says Jacob Modise, who organized the school's athletics. Maree was also too withdrawn to cry out that at home, when he raced other boys around the block pushing the rim of a bicycle tire with a stretched clothes hanger, he always finished first.

His diet was often three servings a day of pap, a tasteless mixture of water and cornmeal. Bread was happiness. Meat was ecstasy. His brother, Pat, seven years younger, suffered from malnutrition.

Maree lay on the floor at nights thinking of the nice clothes and car he would someday own, but when it came to picturing the path to these luxuries, his mind blanked and he screamed at it not to flirt with this dangerous word—how? The thread between sacrifice and reward had been snipped for his people, and so the adolescent males tumbled from their crowded houses to roam the streets like hungry tomcats, and the girls sat on doorsteps taking inventory of the best prospects to fill them with babies. To carve out privacy you had to crawl deep, deep into yourself, because in the closeness of the black townships you breathed your brother's sweat and heard your parents' whispers and flinched at your neighbors' arguments. Their music and their mood and their musk were all yours.

Maree crawled deep. "He was the one boy here in Atteridgeville who was serious," says his old school chum, Samuel Moatshe. He turned to soccer, leaving toenails on the rock-strewn vacant lots, but he lacked agility. On weekends he did gardening work for a white man, lowering his eyes and calling him Baas (Boss), as all the blacks he knew called white men. He would sit outside the man's house in the morning, terrified even to lay knuckles on a white man's door, until the man came outside.

But something about running kept pulling at him. He could do it alone, and he always sensed that there was width for only one on the path he would take. And it gave him some strange tingle of power in a world of overwhelming powerless-ness. They could control where he ate and slept and studied and went to the bathroom, they could prevent him from voting or protesting or being promoted, but they could not control how long or how hard he pumped his arms and legs on a rutted dirt road.

Fortune blew at his back. When it came time to choose a high school he was away from home and applied too late for the local school. Instead he had to take two different trains to cover the 40 km to Vlakfontein, which was a technical school. Vlakfontein was one of the few high schools in his state that had white teachers instructing black children. The pale hand that pushed him down would be the same one that picked him up. Friedemann Stut, a German who had moved to South Africa in 1955, was the school's sports organizer. He conducted an intramural track meet to determine who would represent Vlakfontein against other schools, and when the 16-year-old Maree finished second in the 1,500 meters to a 22-year-old senior, Stut declared to another teacher, "There is the future South African champion."

"My boy," Stut said to Maree, "you've got potential. Are you interested in carrying on?"

"Yes sir," panted Sydney.

"Do you do much distance work?"


"You've got to do distance. You're too frail. You've got to make your lungs grow."

Maree nodded; just talking to a white man was a fearful thing. And from the next day on, he awoke and ran and came home from school and ran, always ignoring the neighbors who kept asking why, always peering down at his chest and saying to himself, "It's not growing! I've got to do more distance!"

His grades were A's and B's, for if he wasn't running he was studying. His high school principal supplied him with a track suit and sneakers, arranged for him to get a sandwich each day and for the country's top black coach, James Mokoka, to supervise his training. Many days he would run for 45 minutes at sunrise, shower, run two miles to the train station, his black tie flapping and his seven schoolbooks swaying in his tote bag, get off the train and run two more miles to school, do the same all over on the way home, then run for an hour and a half under Mokoka's supervision and later sneak off and run the mountain behind his house. Mokoka was furious to learn Maree was outrunning his training program, but Maree had a hole in him that grew deeper when he didn't finish a day exhausted. "I felt I should leave my workouts crawling," he said. "I channeled all my anger into running."

"He was running for revenge," Mokoka said, "running for liberation."

One day the Marees received a telegram. Lucas, the brother closest to Sydney in age who was living at that time with his stepfather's parents in Pietersburg, had gotten into an argument with a friend over which record to play. They had begun to fight, and someone had tossed his opponent a knife, and suddenly it had been inside and out of Lucas' heart twice.

The day after they laid Lucas in a hole and piled rocks upon his grave, Sydney was scheduled to run in an invitational track meet. He decided, after much thought, to compete. "So many things have happened to me I could not control," he says, "so that whenever there was something I could control, I have always felt I must conquer it." He ran away from the rest, and for the first time his picture appeared in a South African newspaper.

In 1976 the South African championships in Bloemfontein were opened to all races, and Maree would run against a white for the first time. Mokoka saw both the urge and the awe in Maree's eyes. "He had been training so hard because he thought whites were superior," Mokoka says.

"This is not like life," Mokoka told him before the race, "where the white man can undermine you. The white man can set no speed traps on the track. Here you can show him you're just as good—or better."

Maree slashed the tape first, "all arms and legs and teeth," remembers Jannie Momburg, vice-president of South Africa's amateur athletic union. And still Maree, then 19, was afraid to lift his eyes to the horizon when he ran, because all he could see were walls. There were no university scholarships available, no white men he could picture laboring for, no job that suited him. He could make the equivalent of a thousand dollars a year running for one of the gold mine track teams, but the other nine runners on that team were mostly high school dropouts who, when he ran against them, mocked him for his skinniness and studiousness, and the thought of being with them repelled him. "I was scared," he said. "My future haunted me."

His name began to be sprinkled in the newspapers, and one day a distinguished-looking, silver-haired man with a disciplined mustache and a love of running that once had propelled him through a 96-km race, heard Maree's story and felt strangely compelled.

"I was told he had great potential but that he didn't have money for training gear or to get to meets," says Naudë Klopper, a white who was sales manager in a cement firm doing business near Maree's school. "For some reason I kept thinking about it as I drove back to my office. It was like someone was saying to me, 'If you don't do something for him, no one will.' "

Klopper telephoned the head of his company, Blue Circle, who agreed to sponsor Maree and provide him with a thousand-rand (then approximately $1,150) kitty to start with. Maree met his benefactor on the street in front of a Pretoria hotel and stared at the sidewalk in shock when he was told of the plan to back him.

"I took him to a sporting goods store," Klopper says, "and it was like taking a child into a shop full of toys and saying, 'What do you want?' He selected everything as if he had lain in bed many nights thinking of exactly what he wanted."

A few weeks later came the day that rearranged Maree's life. Each year on Dec. 15, the day before the national holiday commemorating the 1838 devastation at Blood River of 10,000 Zulus by 500 pioneers without a single white casualty (the pioneers had cannon and muskets), a major track meet is held at Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Clive Dale, a university student flirting with a four-minute mile, was the favorite in 1976. Maree was invited, the only schoolboy and the only black. They called it The Dream Mile, a term first used in the U.S. Half an hour before the race Maree approached Klopper.

"What is a mile?" he asked. "And what is a Dream Mile?"

He was told that a mile is slightly longer than 1,500 meters and that this race got its name because so many runners dreamed of running it in less than four minutes. Then he stepped to the starting line, not even knowing what splits to run. The inside of him trembled; the outside was still. "Just before the race, the wind and rain had gone to sleep," he says.

The gun cracked and Maree shot out with the leaders. "Hold on, hold on, Syd, don't kick yet," Klopper kept whispering to himself. On the back straightaway of the last lap, Maree bolted into the lead, and as he took the turn for home, the floodlights threw his shadow just off his right shoulder. At the same instant, 20,000 spectators stood and roared, and Maree became confused. He mistook his shadow for Dale and the roar for a primal scream for the white man coming up to blow past the black, and some inner frenzy swept him yet faster and faster down the stretch and over the finish line, a dark and singular wave heaving itself upon an endless beach of white sand.

Time: 3:57.9. Tumult: instantaneous. Dale had never been that close to him. In literally trying to outrun his shadow, Maree had run the fastest schoolboy mile in South African history. Maree was bewildered; the numbers meant nothing to him. They whisked him to the stadium's VIP room, handed him the trophy as the meet's outstanding performer and surrounded him with microphones and cameras and note pads. Finally Maree worked his way through the crush and spoke quietly to his sponsor. "Mr. Klopper," he said, "can we please get out of here and go with the common people?"

He would never belong to them again. For now his name was caught up in a current he could not possibly imagine. The South African government at the time was engaged in a secret, illegal crusade to improve its image abroad, using millions of taxpayers' rands to support friendly U.S. politicians' campaigns, to purchase controlling interest in the Sacramento (Calif.) Union—after South Africa's front man failed in his attempt to buy the Washington Star—to buy an interest in a UPI-owned TV news agency and to disseminate propaganda by various other means. Fifteen million dollars were also loaned to a fertilizer tycoon named Louis Luyt so he could start a Johannesburg-based newspaper—The Citizen—that would present the news with a government slant. The newspaper would also sponsor a black schoolboy's trip to America for two months of competition and training to show the world how a black man could flower in the garden of South Africa.

No one smelled the fertilizer. Maree could hardly sleep at night from the excitement. It was more than a year before the scandal would be uncovered, The Citizen would be revealed to be a government organ, then President John Vorster would resign in dishonor—and Maree would be accused of being a government pawn.

One day before he left, he sat outside Pilditch Stadium in Pretoria waiting for a children's track meet to end so he could work out. A police van pulled up. "Pass," demanded the policeman, asking for the identity booklet every black must carry at all times. It shows his date of birth, tribe, homeland and employer. Maree didn't have his. "Get in the van," the policeman ordered.

Frightened, Maree stared out from behind the van's cage meshing and watched as the police drove around town, packing the van with blacks who didn't have their passbooks. "I felt angry," he says. "People were trying to explain and they were shoving them in."

When the van arrived at the station, an officer recognized Maree. "Go," he said. Maree looked back at the others, who had no recognizable names, and walked out.

The next day he waved goodby to his friends, kissed his teary-eyed mother and climbed the steps onto an airplane. Stut, recalling that time, shakes his head and mulls over what had made this boy so different. "It was discipline that made Sydney Maree," he says. "I think I know where he got it. There was white blood in his family, you know."

Three South African policemen step out on the road and order Maree to pull off onto the gravel. Surely, a white man traveling with a black in an expensive car is worth investigating. One leans through a window, his Israeli-made UZI submachine gun leaning in with him. Maree's face clouds but he says nothing.

They search the car, the trunk and his attaché case, and then they grunt him on his way. He is just outside a rural black township named Ga-Rankuwa, running an errand for his aunt. He is choosing a lamb for slaughter.

It has been three months since his niece died, against the grille of a car in the township, and now, according to tradition, the family must gather to slit a lamb's throat, collect its blood and eat its meat, as the girl's mother removes her black mourning clothes for the first time. Maree is the only one in the extended family who can spare the 35 rands ($32.55) for the lamb, because the girl's father is unemployed.

Maree stares into a pen filled with bleating black faces and woolen white bodies and points to one with the number 28 burned on to its back. A man wades into the pen, and the lambs collectively smell death and crowd to the opposite corner. Finally the man seizes the animal's left rear leg and drags it from the flock.

Maree opens the trunk of the BMW and moves his leather attaché case and his Members Only jacket to make room for the sacrificial lamb. A boy spins the animal onto its back, gathers its four legs and lassos them. It bleats and jerks powerlessly, staring into the cloudless sky with a look in its eyes not unlike Maree's when the police pulled him over.

He drives onto the road, trying to ignore the thumping in the trunk. He stops at his aunt's house and opens the trunk. White hair and manure pellets are everywhere. The lamb has kicked two legs free and it thrashes its hooves and bleats and tries to leap from the trunk. "Don't let him out," Maree cries. "If we allow him to run, no one will ever catch him. . . ."

June 1977. Maree stepped off the plane at JFK Airport, expecting to stay two months and return to—no, he certainly could not call it home. Waiting was Andrew Hatcher of the New York-based Sydney S. Baron & Co. public relations firm, which South Africa paid more than $2 million to spit-shine its image; Bert Lancaster, the promoter and sponsor of the Philadelphia Pioneers track club, whom Hatcher's firm had contacted regarding Maree; and Jack Pyrah, an associate of Lancaster's who also happened to be assistant track coach at Villanova.

Confusion was immediate. Maree was led to the right-hand side of Lancaster's car—the steering-wheel side in South Africa—and was petrified at the thought that his hosts were about to make him do something he had never done: drive. They took him to see Bubbling Brown Sugar on Broadway, and he could not help staring at the mélange of black and white faces in the audience. He was baffled that a five-cent coin was bigger than a 10-cent coin. He gazed longingly in shoe-store windows.

He moved in with Lancaster and wrote daily to his mother. After a track meet at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, he ordered passion-fruit juice and was embarrassed when everyone laughed. He became uncomfortable hearing his own British accent, with its African lilt, because it didn't seem to belong, and so he began asking other runners to order his food for him.

He passed a college-entrance test and was offered a track scholarship to Villanova. Suddenly, two months might become four years. The thought held delight and terror; he missed his mother fiercely. He knew he didn't belong in South Africa, and yet neither did he belong here. But maybe, he thought, if I pump my legs and arms long enough and hard enough. . . .

He stayed. More than 90% of Villanova's enrollment were people he would have called Baas a few months before. Just for him to smile and say "Hi" represented a stunning change in his lifelong habits. He stayed in his dorm and studied furiously.

He went home over Christmas of '77 and was ordered into the caged van once more by Pretoria police for not having his passbook. It didn't ease the pain when they recognized him once more and let him go but kept his best friend.

He returned to Villanova for the second semester of his freshman year and the outdoor track season, and his teammates could not understand why he ate and stretched and ran alone. When they tried to joke with him he grew yet quieter. He didn't smoke or drink or go to parties. He didn't throw Frisbees or shoot baskets. He would not study in the library, only in his room. Togetherness was an adhesive he had never known. All his energy was poured into proving himself.

In his second semester, he had the second-highest grade in his English literature class. By the end of his second year of running, he had set an NCAA 5,000-meter meet record of 13:20.63 in the outdoor championships; set an IC4A indoor record in the three miles and an IC4A outdoor record in the 5,000 meters; anchored Villanova's winning distance medley team in the Penn Relays; and set a South African record for the mile of 3:53.7. He also held four Villanova records.

He didn't run with the free flow that other great runners did. He ran as if bound by a string-stingy puppeteer, his arms tight to his body and his feet lifting only slightly from the earth, his eyes preoccupied by something just inches from his nose. He ran with his own private emotionless motion. When it was time to kick he showed no pain—but then Maree never did. On the track, this could break another runner's heart. Off it, it only broke his own.

Occasionally, he let another in. A white dormmate named Jay Cook showed him how to shave and how to drive, and Maree showed him how he smiled. By his third year he would be sharing a room with a white runner named Chris Rose. "I saw that whites sweated and suffered just like I did," he says. He began to knead Rose's calves when they cramped, and once, when Rose felt queasy running up a hill nine miles into Villanova's 10-mile training loop, Maree called, "C'mon, Chris, grab my shirt," and towed him to the summit.