Smuggling a Banned Commodity
South Africa is accustomed to inconvenience. Decades of isolation in sports and business have made resourcefulness a necessity.
In sports, the boycotts and bans have also engendered a sophisticated level of cheating among some sportsmen, those who have learned to use subterfuge to get what the world would deny them.
They use bribery and corruption. They buy passports, change names and blur identities.
It is no great surprise that money greases the wheels of this international intrigue. The formula runs something like this: Someone wants help. Someone emerges who can help. Someone provides help and is well paid. Repeat procedure.
In the case of South African athletes who seek to compete outside the country, Paul Coetser is someone who helps. Coetser, an unassuming fellow, and his partner, Tony McKeever, run SportsMark, South Africa’s largest, and possibly its only, sports management company. The two represent dozens of amateur and professional athletes in South Africa and elsewhere.
Coetser, who says that other areas of the business provide the profit, estimates that his company has spent half a million rand to get South African athletes into international competition since 1982.
“You want to know what we have made out of athletes?” he says. “Let’s be extravagant. Let’s say we have made 50,000 rand (about $22,000). From all the athletes. Athletes owe us about 300,000 rand, according to our contracts. I am being as honest as I can be. About 50,000 rand.”
So why does Coetser do this? Why is he so helpful?
According to SportsMark’s contracts, as the agent, Coetser would receive 15% to 30% of an athlete’s earnings. For that cut, Coetser delivers professional, expert service.
GOING TO SEE THE CHIEF
They call Lesotho, an independent country surrounded by South Africa, “the Kingdom in the Sky” because of its mountainous terrain. If you know where you are going, it is a most welcoming place. If you are from outside, you might well lose your way.
Three people had been following a guide for more than an hour, hiking though the mountains, trying to find a river near a particular village. Coetser and Annette Falkson, who is white and one of South Africa’s best women marathon runners, were on their way to see the chief. Johan Fourie, a South African 1,500-meter runner, had come along to help.
At last they came to the river, which was swollen with rain and looked, from the high bank, unfordable. The guide set off, eventually returning with a man and a mule.
“You must give this man some money for his mule and he will take you across,” the guide said.
This ferry system took still more time, as the man carefully picked his way across the rocky riverbed, sitting on the back of his mule, taking first one passenger then another.
Wet, but finally on the other side, they set out again. At last they found the village and sat to wait for the chief. After a time the chief arrived and they all went to his kraal , where they sat in a circle. Coetser told the chief that he had come from afar to seek the chief’s wisdom on a certain matter.
The matter, he said, involved one of the chief’s people, a girl who had grown up in this village. He told the chief he had brought this girl, now a woman, before him to identify.
Coetser told the chief that if he confirmed that the woman and her parents before her had come from this area, then this woman could get a birth certificate, which was very important to her.
The chief thought about this. They continued to sit and smoked a pipe for a time. Then someone brought some of the chief’s home-brewed beer. They drank that. The chief said he wasn’t sure he could remember this one woman from among so many people in his village.
Coetser said he understood how an elder with such responsibilities could have this problem. Coetser pulled out a bill. The chief thought about this. Coetser pulled out another bill. The chief peered at Falkson. The more money Coetser extracted from his pocket, the more the chief seemed to recognize Falkson.
Near the end of Coetser’s money, the chief suddenly recalled that Falkson and her blood kin had been respected residents of his village for generations. More money. He remembered her as a baby.
A little later, Coetser and his party left the chief and his village, found the river, the man and his mule and descended from the Kingdom in the Sky.
It took Coetser nine months and a considerable amount of money to set up that trip. But he walked away from the deal with exactly what he had wanted--a Lesotho passport and birth certificate for Falkson, a South African citizen.
It was a triumph of persistence and ingenuity, but it was more than that. Those simple documents were the ticket to Falkson’s athletic freedom. Freedom that she bought, with the help of Coetser, South Africa’s foremost practitioner of the fine art of getting out.
Here’s how he did it. The birth certificate came first. Falkson was not born in Lesotho, but a woman with her name was. Coetser knew this because he had examined the Lesotho Registry of Births. For that privilege he’d had to bribe an official. Coetser now had a registration of Falkson’s birth.
To get a birth certificate he had to show proof that Falkson was born where the Registry had recorded. The helpful chief solved that problem.
With the document from the chief, Falkson could get a birth certificate. With that, she could apply for a Lesotho passport.
She bought the passport and tried to use it as proof of citizenship to run in the 1988 L.A. Marathon. At the 11th hour, she wasn’t allowed to run because she was recognized by U.S. track officials as a South African.
Postscript: Falkson is still living and competing in South Africa and has not tried to use the Lesotho passport again.
If South Africa ever becomes socially acceptable to the sports world and its athletes are free to compete internationally, Coetser’s contracts will increase dramatically in value. Making, of course, more money for Coetser.
Until then, he has little fear of the international rules that are supposed to keep South Africans from participating in international competition.
“Come on, that is a joke,” said Coetser, a recreational runner who has entered international races under assumed names.
“I can’t tell you the number of big races we have run in the U.S. and everywhere else. We have people registered with TAC, we are members of the New York Road Racing Club. I try to run as many races under as many names as I can, to get a name established (and pass on to other South Africans). So when race directors ask where my athletes have run, we can show results. I have run many times under women’s names.”
Running a race under a woman’s name is a radical departure for this former schoolteacher. Coetser used to be the classic mild-mannered scholar-with-thick-glasses type, and he is at a loss to explain his eager dive into the depths of international intrigue. A staunch family man and outward conservative, Coetser is a puzzle.
Coetser might seem bold when he scoffs at international rules. But he has reason to hold them in low regard--he has broken them so many times.
AN AUDIENCE WITH THE KING
It started when Fourie, the 1,500-meter runner, came to Coetser one day in 1983 and said he had heard he could get Swazi citizenship in time to compete in the 1984 Olympics.
They took a day trip to Swaziland, another small country almost totally surrounded by South Africa, and met with the head of the country’s sports council. They were told that, yes, it would not be difficult for such a fine runner to represent Swaziland at the Olympics.
They went another time and met with officials of the country’s track and field federation. On still another trip, they talked to the Swazi Olympic Committee. After about six months of introductions, Coetser began noticing that the more Swazi officials he met, the more it was costing him.
Ultimately, it paid off. Fourie and two other South African athletes finally received Swazi passports for a total of about 50 rand, about $22. Much cheaper than meeting officials.
Still, the passports were not enough. The L.A. Olympics had come and gone and still Fourie didn’t have his citizenship, and they were running out of money. They had bribed officials to get residence permits, about 1,200 rand. But residence permits were not the same as citizenship papers, and without those they could not go abroad to compete.
Coetser was becoming angry. It was time to see the King.
After three months of negotiations, they arrived at the appointed time for the audience. They waited. The King, a teen-ager, never showed. The King’s counselors had little to say to Coetser about this. This sometimes happens, they told him.
That night, Coetser invited a few members of the Swaziland Olympic Committee to dinner. Twenty-five “officials” showed up. The next morning as he was checking out of his hotel, he noticed a discrepancy in his bill. It seems that his dinner guests had checked into eight hotel rooms and charged their expenses to his account.
Postscript: Coetser still has the three passports, which he keeps as souvenirs. They have never been used. He still does not have the Swazi citizenship papers.
Paul Coetser, an Afrikaner who was raised in arch-conservative Pretoria and who loudly condemns apartheid, argues that his sometimes shady methods have been forced upon him.
“I don’t know if you know how desperate we are,” he said. “I am doing what I believe is good for the individual athlete in this country. The isolation is horrible. They have hit this country where it hurts the most--at sports. The day they started the sports campaign, that was the best angle they ever had against apartheid.
“However, the time has come to stop. The world must meet the sportsman halfway. The athletes, black and white, are suffering because the politicians can’t make up their damn minds. Athletes have been taken as instruments and shoved around for many years. Today they are simply instruments in the hands of politicians.”
Coetser recalls with some pride that he was once the most hated man in South African sports. Now, he said, officials are coming to see his methods as less radical and more practical.
He said he doesn’t want to continue to break the rules. He said he is only telling his story now because of the changing political climate in South Africa and because, “It’s time for people to know what’s going on.
“The point is, there are many ways of doing it,” he said. “It’s all done because of desperation and a burning desire to run internationally. If I really want to, I can keep doing it. If they catch us, they catch us. We can just come back next time and do it under different names. It’s very expensive, but we can find the money.”
DO YOU KNOW THE WAY TO PARAGUAY?
It was called Project Genesis. The name symbolized the beginning of a new approach by Coetser, a desperate, try-anything attempt to get South African athletes into international competition.
Coetser picked the Honolulu Marathon because it fit well into the schedule. It was also off the beaten path, and that was a key.
Coetser called Larry Heidebrecht, a sports agent he met at the 1987 World Championships at Rome. Heidebrecht knew Coetser as Paul Stevens, a name Coetser used when he didn’t want to be identified as a South African. Coetser told Heidebrecht that he had two marathon runners from Paraguay and he wanted to get them into the Honolulu Marathon. Heidebrecht said he would call the race director.
The two runners were entered 10 days before the race, with modest times. The race director, Jim Barahal, agreed that the runners would pay their own way to the race and he would provide hotel rooms. In addition, Barahal agreed that if one of the runners finished in the top three, the race would then pay the transportation of the coach.
Later, Heidebrecht called to say that only one runner, Brandt Nava, would compete, that the other was not ready. The truth was that Coetser wasn’t sure he could get passports for two runners.
Nava got there, but quite late. He, his coach and Coetser arrived at 5 p.m. the day before the race, only 12 hours before race time. Coetser introduced himself to Barahal as Paul Stefanos, a Greek national living in London. Nava’s real name was David Tsebe. He was a young welfare officer in a platinum mine, a South African.
Coetser and Tsebe kept to themselves before the race and even Barahal said he didn’t notice Tsebe-Nava until about six miles into the race. The runner was among the leaders and looking strong. He led at nine miles. At 15 miles Gianni Poli of Italy made a break. Nava went with him, still in the lead. Poli caught him at 22 1/2 miles and Nava settled in behind him. To most, Nava looked fresh and Poli was laboring.
Poli won and Nava was second in 2 hours 15 minutes 12 seconds.
In retrospect, Nava clearly threw the race, on Coetser’s instructions. Awaiting the winner were many inquiring eyes and a national television audience.
Among the reporters was runner Alberto Salazar, who was doing television commentary. Salazar, who speaks Spanish, approached Nava for an interview. Salazar spoke Spanish to Nava, supposedly a Paraguayan whose native language would have been Spanish. Nava didn’t appear to understand. Salazar spoke to him in English, with no response.
The charade unraveled quickly. It became apparent that Stefanos and Nava weren’t who they said they were and were neither Greek nor Paraguayan. After agreeing to meet Barahal to discuss the situation, the South Africans left Honolulu abruptly. Barahal was left with a hotel bill that included $258 worth of phone calls to South Africa.
Postscript: Coetser still has the Paraguayan passports. He still has two checks for $5,000, Brandt Nava’s prize money. The checks have never been cashed.
Post-Postscript: How did Coetser get the Paraguayan passports? That’s still another story.
“There was a government project to sell farms in northern Paraguay to investors,” he said. “Part of the deal was that I could get passports. I went there and I said, OK, I’ll buy one farm for $20,000 U.S. I was supposed to get four passports. Well, at the end of the day, I only paid 5,000 rand and I got the passports. I got a registered number and the farm address.”
Coetser said he had little trouble registering the names, all false, of South African athletes with the Paraguayan track and field federation.
“There is corruption out there like you cannot believe,” he said. “Anything is possible with money.”
Because of its policy of apartheid, or racial separation, South Africa has been shunned by the international sporting community. It has been banned from the Olympics since 1960 and international sporting codes prohibit South African athletes from competing anywhere outside their country and impose lengthy bans on any athlete who competes in South Africa.