It was only hours before the South African team was to march in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Barcelona—its first such appearance since the Rome Games of 1960—when Nelson Mandela, the charismatic black leader of the antiapartheid movement, arrived in the Olympic Village to speak privately to his countrymen. He was accompanied by a few bodyguards, but they stepped aside as excited South African athletes and officials pressed close to him. Some were black, some were white, and the 74-year-old Mandela, a former amateur boxer, seemed to draw strength from the circle of rapt faces that surrounded him. "All I want to say is that our presence here is of great significance to our country, a significance which goes beyond the boundaries of sport," he said, passion rising. "Our country has been isolated for many years, not only in sports but in other fields as well. We are saying now, 'Let's forget the past. Let bygones be bygones.' I want to tell you that we respect you, we are proud of all of you and, above all, we love you."
That night the South African team strode proudly into a roaring Olympic Stadium led by its flag bearer, Jan Tau, 32, a marathoner and a black man. The former pariah nation was warmly welcomed by 65,000 spectators, including a couple of hundred members of the International Olympic Committee and various other world sports bodies that, one by one, had voted to readmit South Africa to international sport after the government of President F.W. de Klerk officially outlawed apartheid last year.
Tau, who was born in the last year that a South African team—all white, of course—competed in an Olympics, said breathlessly, "It felt incredible to be standing together." And Edward Griffiths, sports editor of the South African National Sunday Times, filed a happy tearjerker from Barcelona that began, "Last night, on a balmy evening beside the Mediterranean, the glory overflowed for every South African. The world, in its most visible and emotional form, had welcomed South Africa back to the fold.... We will never stray again."
The following morning the first South African to compete in the Olympics in 32 years, modern pentathlete Trevor Strydom, a white man, lost his opening match in the fencing portion of the event to Ian Soellner of Canada. Some five hours later, as Mandela cheered from the stands, the second South African athlete to perform in these Games, boxer Fana Thwala, a black man, was beaten 9-0 by Rafael Lozano of Spain in a first-round match in the 106-pound class.
Yes, they were back, and they were definitely integrated. And they were bravely aware that they could go home with no medals at all. They were even more aware that their true mission at these Games had less to do with winning gold than with winning the world over to the belief that apartheid is truly a thing of the past. As Bruce Savage of South Africa's yachting team put it, "We're athletes first of all, but let's not kid ourselves. We have a very strong message to deliver. We need to prove to people that we can get along."
This might be easier said than done, for the human ruin and ongoing anger that grew out of four decades of apartheid can't be undone overnight. For example, the South African team in Barcelona consists of 85 whites and only 12 nonwhites—roughly a 7-to-1 ratio, while nonwhites outnumber whites in the country 4 to 1. This grotesque inversion is the result of a variety of social and economic atrocities committed under apartheid, but mainly it reflects a systematic policy that for years has deprived the nation's black athletes of top-level coaching and facilities, as well as sponsors. Thanks to apartheid, South Africans are also competing in Barcelona without their national flag, their national anthem or their national sporting emblem, the springbok, each of which was decried by Mandela and other members of his party, the African National Congress (ANC), as a symbol of South African racism. Thus the anthem was replaced by the Olympic hymn and the flag by one bearing a white field imprinted with the Olympic rings, stripes of blue, green and brown—representing South Africa's sea, vegetation and land—and gray swaths, emblematic of the country's mineral riches. No substitute was produced for the springbok.
The dissent over the flag, the anthem and the sporting symbol was only a small manifestation of the deeper racial disagreements that still engage South Africa and its athletes. Despite the warmth of Mandela's pep talk, as recently as six weeks ago he and his ANC colleagues were considering calling for South Africa to withdraw from the Olympics. The catalyst for this action was the June 17 massacre of more than 40 people in the black township of Boipatong, an atrocity in which the ANC suspected De Klerk's government might be involved. This slaughter led to an angry cancellation of all negotiations between De Klerk and Mandela, who were seeking to forge a plan for implementing majority rule in South Africa. Though the ANC's talk of withdrawal was short-lived, the lingering hostility that it revived between black and white political leaders soon infected the nation's black and white leaders in sport, who had been maintaining a tenuous coexistence strained by territorial rivalries, personal jealousies and conspiracies—some racial, some not.
The most prominent victim in this sporting standoff was, ironically, an athlete who was probably South Africa's best male hope for a medal in Barcelona. Tom Petranoff, 34, is an American-born javelin thrower who twice set the world record, in 1983 and '86, and who established the African mark of 286'3" at the African Games in Mauritius in June. Besides being an accomplished athlete, Petranoff is a maverick. He was a leader of a rebel tour of 13 U.S. athletes who performed in South Africa just after the '88 Olympics even though there was an international prohibition against competing there. As a result Petranoff was banned for six years from international competition by The Athletics Congress.
Petranoff was stunned by the severity of his sentence. The South African sponsors of the tour had promised him $35,000 for appearing in the five meets, another $35,000 if he was suspended for more than two years and $350,000 for legal fees to help fight any suspension. "I never denied that money was the sole reason I went," Petranoff said last week. "I was two months behind on my mortgage, I had made some stupid financial decisions. I had a wife and two kids I had to support. People say I deserved what I got. Well, all right, but I have lived with it. I went there for survival." He was paid the first $35,000, but the sponsors disappeared, and Petranoff got nothing more. Ostracized by major track and field authorities, he had no place on earth left to compete except South Africa, so he moved his family to Johannesburg and became a local hero—and a South African citizen.
Says Guy Hawthorne, a sportswriter for Business Day in Johannesburg: "To South Africans, Petranoff represented the dim light of sense and sanity at the end of a tunnel they considered to be darkened by world bigotry and liberal myopia." This view was, of course, held far more widely by the nation's whites than by its blacks.
Amid the political infighting Petranoff still emerged as the second-most-likely medal contender on the South African team, behind Elana Meyer, the 10,000-meter star.
In early June, Petranoff went to train in Helsinki, assuming all along that his place on the South African Olympic team was secure. Then, barely a week before the Games began, black members of Athletics South Africa (ASA), the national track and field federation, suddenly began questioning his place on the team. They recalled his old role as a sanctions-buster, they said he had accused the ANC of playing politics with sports, and they asked that he send a letter of explanation. Within days Petranoff wrote to the ASA and the NOCSA (National Olympic Committee of South Africa) in a boyish hand, replete with misspellings and grammatical errors: "Firstly, I would like to apologize to you and your organization any grief caused by my 1988 rebel tour to South Africa. I was politically nieve and obviosly did not understand your struggle and reasons for the moratorium.... I have had 2 South African girls born in JoBerg and I plan to spend the rest of my life in South Africa. Even if you don't feel I should go to Barcelona."
In the end Petranoff's name was left off the team list, and the emotions surrounding his suspension were soon lost amid the euphoria of South Africa's rebirth.
Given the Petranoff controversy, it is probably best for now simply to recall the scene of Mandela giving his pep talk to an integrated team in the Olympic Village and then singling out two white members, Meyer and tennis player Wayne Ferreira, and saying, "We are counting on you." In recalling that scene, let us remember that when the last Summer Olympics were about to begin, in Seoul in 1988, this same heroic man—unseen and unheard by the world since 1964—was still serving what would be nearly 28 years in prison, a leading martyr to apartheid.
After a 32-year absence South Africa strode into the Olympics with an integrated team.
Mandela's message to his countrymen: "Forget the past."
In the end Petranoff simply couldn't outdistance his past.