In Soweto, south africa, a vast black settlement outside Johannesburg, SI senior writer William Oscar Johnson last week came upon an elemental sports scene. A dozen children, eight to 10 years of age, were playing soccer in the street with a battered old ball. Amid the corrugated tin shacks and disheveled huts, the children shouted and climbed over one another as they kicked the ball up and down the road, stopping occasionally to reinflate the sagging sphere.
After watching for several minutes, Johnson, whose story from South Africa begins on page 36, approached the group and asked what they thought of last summer's World Cup soccer tournament. The kids replied that they had never heard of the World Cup. Startled, Johnson then asked them what they thought of the Olympic Games. The youths gave the same reply: They had never heard of the Olympics.
That scene is emblematic of the state of sports in South Africa. Though the country's sports community is on the verge of massive changes as a result of last week's announcement by the International Olympic Committee that it would grant conditional recognition to South Africa for the 1992 Olympics, everywhere there are distinct reminders of what decades of isolation have done to that torn land. "Being deprived of international competition essentially since the mid-'60s meant seeing the same people compete against each other over and over again," says Johnson. "The people lost interest. What they really lost were their heroes."
Johnson is something of an expert on sports in countries with repressive regimes. In addition to reporting from China in 1973 and '88, and from the Soviet Union in 1974, '77 and '85, Johnson was in Berlin in November 1989, four days after the fall of the Wall. He was in Germany working on Thrown Free, a book he wrote with SI special contributor Anita Verschoth about East German discus thrower Wolfgang Schmidt. The book, which was excerpted in SI's Jan. 21 issue and released last month by Simon & Schuster, is a mesmerizing account of the East German sports juggernaut and the athletes who flourished under the system—and at the same time were imprisoned by it.
For Johnson, the changes that are taking place in South Africa have created a mood that is strikingly similar to the one in Germany last year. "There's this sense of euphoria and joy and marvelous promise that you just can't exaggerate," he says. "South African athletes feel like they're being born again."
Johnson cautions, however, that such optimism inevitably runs up against some harsh realities, as it did in Germany. "There is tremendous poverty among the blacks in South Africa, tremendous wealth among the whites and a great deal of anger that will be difficult to overcome," he says. "Unfortunately, a perfect future isn't guaranteed even when the political changes seem to be very positive."
In Soweto, Johnson found young athletes filled with enthusiasm but limited by South Africa's forced isolation.