Imagine planning a trip to an exotic foreign land. It’s quite nice, in its way, but you know that soon you will be returning home. When the time comes, you pack your bags, hurry to the airport and fly away. Only after landing in the new country are you told that you can’t go back, that now you must stay.
Tom Petranoff is that traveler, and South Africa is the country in which he and his family are trapped, at least for the time being.
In this real-life scenario Petranoff has unwittingly caught himself in the sticky web of international sporting rules and sanctions. Actually, Petranoff, a two-time U.S. Olympian and former world record-holder in the javelin, may return to his home in Oceanside whenever he wants--but only if he is willing to give up his sport.
Petranoff isn’t ready to quit and doesn’t view returning home as a non-athlete as much of an option. And he certainly feels trapped.
His is a strange tale, laced with not a small amount of irony. As an American athlete, he was free to compete in any country in the world--except South Africa. When Petranoff decided to join the “rebel” tour of American athletes who competed in a series of meets in South Africa after the Seoul Olympics, he lost that right.
Petranoff was banned from world competition for six years by The Athletics Congress, the U.S. track and field federation, and that suspension is not subject to further appeal. Now, the only country in the world where he is allowed to throw the javelin is South Africa.
Petranoff might as well have taken out South African citizenship, for--athletically at least--he is the equivalent of a South African.
“I’m in the exact same position as a South African athlete,” Petranoff said. “It’s ironic. Now I’m not allowed to step outside these boundaries.”
It is one thing to sympathize with a person in a terrible plight. It is quite another to take on that plight. There are other ways to empathize. Petranoff had no intention of taking it on, but if the stigma of having competed in South Africa is something that can be caught, Petranoff has it.
Lest the metaphor seem too harsh, consider that the international codes that prevent South Africans from competing speak of the “contamination rule,” a theory that the presence of a South African, or any athlete who has ever competed against a South African, will tarnish the competition.
If a South African secretly runs in the New York City Marathon, for instance, all 20,000 runners are subject to the same sanctions as if they had run the race in downtown Johannesburg.
This idea of South Africa sport as an infectious disease is reinforced through international rules and their application. Petranoff says he knew little of this when he agreed to help recruit athletes for the 1988 tour. In this Petranoff was naive or, at the very least, politically unaware. Petranoff said he had no idea there would be so much opposition to a tour of South Africa.
It sounds unlikely that college-educated athletes would be unaware that South Africa is one of the most politically sensitive countries in the world. And, even though the rules had never been applied, since they had never been challenged, it was the athletes’ responsibility to know them.
Further, Petranoff and others on the tour later admitted that one of the reasons they didn’t ask track officials what might happen if they went to South Africa was that they were afraid the officials would say, “You will get into big trouble.”
The group as a whole--known as the South Africa 13--competed in three meets around that country, becoming the first Americans in 26 years to defy international bans. Some of the athletes also competed in other meets.
The athletes were roundly criticized as sports mercenaries who went to South Africa to take advantage of a big payday--$35,000 and performance incentives for each. It was also noted that the specter of suspension was hardly a deterrent to this over-the-hill gang, most of whom were already on the edge of retirement.
Of the group, which included several Olympians and American record-holders, Petranoff had the highest profile and was most vocal. He told reporters that his reasons for the tour were humanitarian. He said the group was apolitical and would take part in only fully integrated meets. Invariably, Petranoff would then add what was to become the group’s mantra, “Sports and politics should not be mixed.”
Now, two years later, Petranoff, 32, can laugh bitterly at the colossal naivete of such a statement.
The sports tour of South Africa set off a chain of political explosions and for his participation, Petranoff was handed his six-year suspension late in 1988, which effectively bars him for the rest of his competitive life. Others were suspended from 12 to two years, the harshest penalties ever handed down in the sport and the first time the rule against participation in South Africa had been applied.
Petranoff, in light of the suspension, made a decision.
Of course, he was free to live in the United States and get a job. The business world may have its restrictive policies toward South Africa, but throwing a javelin there is not among its lists of sins. But if Petranoff wanted to continue throwing the javelin, which had been his job for more than 10 years, he had only one choice. Move to South Africa.
He has. Petranoff, his wife and their three daughters now live, work, and to some extent, socialize in South Africa. It hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t been a pathway paved with gold. It hasn’t been welcome wagons and neighbors with cakes. At times, the decision has been regretted.
“If people had welcomed us more and associated with us more freely, this might be easier,” Petranoff said, sitting in the cluttered living room of the small house he and his wife Carolyn rent in a suburb halfway between Johannesburg and Pretoria. “I’d just as soon be at home. I’d just as soon raise my kids there. Believe me, we have contemplated packing the bags and leaving. But that means not competing.”
Petranoff’s long career is studded with world records in 1983 and 1986--he’s the current American record-holder--as well as outspoken stands, usually on the opposite side of the sports Establishment. He was one of the leading critics of the Carter-inspired boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He has headed TAC’s Protective Testing Committee, which oversees the sport’s drug-testing procedures.
“People have portrayed me as a (jerk) because I blurt out all this stuff on how I’m feeling and I don’t have it in a systematic, unified order,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m an emotional person who probably uses my emotions too much.”
The severity of his suspension may have some correlation to his outspoken, combative nature. But then, Petranoff was not just along for the ride. He helped recruit athletes for the tour. Now, he is not only angry with TAC for the suspension, but also with Dick Tomlinson, the tour’s organizer.
“I don’t feel I got a fair shake,” he said. “I was snowballed and used. It was like, ‘Let’s shut up this Petranoff guy, put him in his place.’ You break the rules. That’s the end of the story. For them, the story ended there. But for me it doesn’t. I admit I broke the rules. I admit I was naive and I made a mistake.”
Petranoff calls the TAC hearings on the tour a “Mickey Mouse shakedown.” He said he was offered a deal in which he would apologize and promise never to go to South Africa again, in return for a lesser sentence.
“Deep down I didn’t feel I should apologize,” he said. “Should I apologize to all the Jews who are being repressed in Russia? I’ve competed there. Should I apologize to the Poles and the Czechs? I’ve competed for the U.S. there.”
Petranoff said that one reason he chose to stay in South Africa was his need for the money he could make from throwing there. He claims that Tomlinson made promises that never materialized. In fact, Tomlinson organized a second tour to South Africa in April of 1989 and Petranoff was not officially invited, even though Tomlinson had said the athletes on the first tour would have the right of first refusal for the second tour.
He is also angry about another issue--the extent to which the South African government was involved in the tours.
The athletes were told that money to finance the tour had come from the private sector, a key point since tour critics had called the athletes “puppets of the apartheid regime.”
Obviously, though, a sports tour, especially of American athletes, would be highly prized by the government as a way of showing the world that South Africa has become “normalized.” As a show of good will, the athletes also held clinics in black townships, often with much media attention.
Petranoff says he now knows that the government was involved in organizing the first tour.
“I plead ignorance and being steered for a purpose that was good,” he said. “In hindsight, it was a cover-up. It was propaganda. It’s like, ‘Let’s bring the cameras out for the clinics in Soweto.’ I didn’t feel very good about that. It was all a big lie. I feel bad. I competed in five meets and six clinics and I got paid $35,000, lock, stock and barrel. I came out taking a bath. And, I can’t bring up my kids in America.
“What is fair? A lot of people think that I’m sitting down here in a millionaire’s house and I’ve got a Mercedes and Lear jets at my doorstep. I want people to know I’m not living on Easy Street.”
Petranoff found that broken promises were not the sole province of Americans. Left with no option other than to compete in South Africa, Petranoff began to make arrangements to live there. He made a deal to represent Rand Afrikans University, in return for hotel accommodation, a salary and air fare for his family to move from California.
The school reneged on the deal, though, about the same time that Mazda, one of Petranoff’s sponsors, told him to hand over the keys to the car the company had provided him. Meanwhile, back home in Oceanside, Petranoff had put his house on the market.
His family of five lived in a Holiday Inn for the first nine weeks they were in South Africa.
“We moved rooms every week, just to get a change of scenery,” Petranoff said.
The financial strain was mounting, almost as fast as the social strain.
Petranoff found that, whereas he had been welcome as a touring athlete, attitudes of athletic administrators changed when he settled in South Africa. His flamboyant and sometimes brash approach to competition rubbed the Establishment the wrong way. Track and field here is a sport in which polite applause is offered to athletes, who respond with little more than tentative waves.
Petranoff, with his flashy tights and sunglasses, combined with his unheard-of ideas about athletes’ rights, was simply too much and too loud. To say he was instantly unpopular is not an overstatement.
“No one wanted to be associated with me,” he said. “Here, it’s ‘Don’t speak until you are spoken to.’ That’s the way it is for athletes. I’m not the best guy to be in a situation like that. They don’t want me to give big ideas to the athletes. In a way, it’s like a mini-mirror of the way the country is being run.”
In February, Petranoff organized top South African athletes into a loose coalition to form a united front in asking for appearance fees. Petranoff pointed out that it was the athletes who were bringing in the crowds and that promoters should acknowledge that.
In a world-class context, no elite athlete would ever set foot on a track without a guaranteed fee, paid up front, often of thousands of dollars. Prize money was another matter to be negotiated.
In South Africa, a few distance runners may be able to negotiate for 1,000 rand, about $400. In track and field, there is modest prize money available, but appearance fees are not widespread. Nor are they welcomed by officials.
Carolyn Petranoff grows angry when recalling the battles her husband has has been in here, often alone.
“No one else is standing up,” she said. “This is what (the officials) were afraid of. A big-mouthed American was going to come down here and tell the athletes what is going on. We found a lot of animosity from people here, especially the athletes.
“Tom and I understand where they are coming from. It used to be that way at home when the foreign athletes started coming to the universities. He’s getting the publicity. But Tom gave up an awful lot. We are not ready to give up his career. So here we are. It sure doesn’t make a lot of people happy. But I don’t know what we are supposed to do about it. We are doing the best we can.”
Carolyn said she has been depressed much of the time since arriving here. She is concerned about her children’s education, even though they attend an “American school,” where classes are conducted in English.
She worries, too, about what her daughters will learn from this foreign society that is far more conservative than what they experienced in Southern California.
“We are not for apartheid in any sense of the word,” she said. “Especially after living here, my God. We understand what the blacks are going through in the city. I think about what it would be like if I were black.”
The family keeps to itself and a small circle of friends, which includes a few South African athletes and coaches. When Tom goes to a meet, Carolyn and the girls go too, sitting in the stands and cheering in their conspicuous American accents.
For his part, Petranoff says he has been pressured by his family in California to come home. “They want to see their grandchildren,” he said of parents and in-laws.
But Petranoff believes he is capable of breaking the world record, even though it would not be recognized if he set it in South Africa and while suspended. Even his recent lengthening of his U.S. record has not been recognized.
He tries not to dwell on the oddity of his situation, but says he would like to go home and compete for the United States again. Given the current climate in the sports world, that doesn’t seem likely.
Carolyn may be more frustrated. She can’t accept the six-year suspension, can’t understand why the family has been in a kind of forced exile here. She can’t understand why they are viewed as outcasts, here in a land where its athletes are the world’s outcasts.
“We came down here and reality hit us in the face: Tom continues to compete here or he doesn’t compete at all,” she said, sighing.
“During the Olympic year, he had been gone so much, that finally we were together as a family and it wasn’t a big deal. All I wanted was for the kids to be with their dad.
“We have made the best of it. Being together as a family is really all that matters. That’s what it boils down to. Besides all the problems we have had here, we are still a very happy family unit.
“Thank God for that, because that’s what keeps us going through all the hard times. It’s so much to believe, that sometimes Tom and I sit and laugh for hours.”