Ban From Olympics Turns Into Net Loss : Tennis: South African players hadn’t been hurt by most world sanctions until IOC ruling.
Keith Diepraam was 20 years old in 1964 when he competed in his first Davis Cup tennis match. Norway was playing host to South Africa. There had been some trouble with anti-apartheid protesters before the South African team arrived, but no one had any idea the situation would get so out of hand.
The security around the competition site was massive, but so was the group of anti-South African protesters. Spectators had to walk through a hail of leaflets to get into the stadium. It didn’t stop inside--the protesters had bought tickets, too.
Diepraam was warming up for his match on center court when he heard a whistle. Suddenly, there was a rush of people around him. In moments, anti-apartheid activists were sitting all over the tennis court, forming a sea of protesters through which Diepraam and his Norwegian opponent appeared to be be wading.
Diepraam still has a news photograph taken at the time. In it, he is looking at all the people and laughing, with a slightly bewildered look.
Twenty-six years later, tennis officials in South Africa are still bewildered, but they are no longer laughing. Some believe they have been betrayed by their international federation, abandoned by professional tennis players and manipulated by sports administrators with an agenda heavy on politics and personal ambition.
Tennis in South Africa is an interesting study of the before and after of international sanctions. While other sports, primarily those in the Olympic Games, faced elaborate bans and boycotts, South African tennis players at one time were free to travel the world to compete. And although there were some protests, they were mainly restricted to Davis Cup competition, in which players represented their countries.
So, in a nation of sports isolation, South African tennis and its professional players happily globetrotted while other athletes stayed home. In fact, given South Africa’s mild climate, tennis thrived. South Africa has produced such stars as Frew McMillan, Bob Hewitt, Ray Moore, Kevin Curren, Johan Kriek, Cliff Drysdale, Ros Fairbank and Christo van Rensburg.
That was the before . The after began last January, when the International Olympic Committee ruled that any tennis player who played in South Africa would not be eligible to compete in the Olympics. Tennis became a medal sport in 1988.
The ruling has forced many of the world’s tennis players to make a difficult decision. South African tennis tournaments have not only tradition and hospitality but also very competitive purses. Also, in the past, the South African Grand Prix tournaments were important to players because they award points that go toward determining who will play in the men’s year-ending Masters tournament, in which only the top eight singles players in the world compete.
American Brad Gilbert came under fire in 1987 for playing in a tournament at Johannesburg two weeks before the Masters, to earn enough points to qualify for the latter event. American Tim Mayotte was battling Gilbert for the eighth and final spot but chose not to play in South Africa. And because of previous commitments, Mayotte could not play in another tournament the next week, the last week to earn points, thereby failing to qualify for the Masters.
These very different decisions were subjected to intense scrutiny.
Mayotte chose not to play in South Africa because he had already drawn the ire of anti-apartheid groups when he played there several years previously. For that, Mayotte had been placed on a United Nations blacklist, but he was not alone. Some of tennis’ brightest stars have at some point been on it, including Chris Evert and Boris Becker.
Gilbert argued that his decision to play in South Africa had nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with his job.
“I’m a tennis player and not a politician,” he said in an interview in New York in 1987. “I don’t think sports and politics should be mixed. I went to Johannesburg because I needed points to qualify for the Masters. I’d have gone to the moon to get here. If I hadn’t gone to Johannesburg, I’d be sitting on the sidelines now.”
South African tennis did not have a good year in 1989. First, the revamped Assn. of Tennis Professionals, the men’s pro tour now run by the players, scheduled two stops in South Africa for the following year. Then the ATP canceled the tournaments for “moral and practical reasons,” according to ATP President Vijay Amritraj.
The ATP’s player council was widely criticized for scheduling the events and in August held a five-hour discussion on the subject. Leading the group arguing to remove the tournaments from the 1990 schedule was former Wimbledon champion Arthur Ashe.
After the decision to pull out, Amritraj said: “For the last six or eight months, we had this question asked of us everywhere, all around the world. It overshadowed everything we had done with the tour. These two events were canceled for the good of the tour. The Olympics are a major factor, so is the United Nations boycott, and the fact that South Africa is not a respected member of the world sports community.”
Meanwhile, satellite events in South Africa, lesser tournaments for which players receive points in the ATP rankings, continue.
About a month after the ATP decision, the International Tennis Federation suspended South Africa as an associate member until the country dismantles apartheid.
When tennis joined the Olympic family, it also got its rules. Ray Moore, a former touring pro from South Africa and a former chairman of the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council, said the day tennis entered the Olympics was the day South African tennis was dealt a deadly blow.
“There are a lot of negative things that have come down on our heads directly because of tennis getting into the Olympics,” Moore said. He lives in Palm Springs and was back in South Africa for a brief meeting with the South African Tennis Union regarding a junior program he is coordinating.
“We certainly didn’t need it. We were going along quite nicely. Yes, our players overseas were restricted from playing in some countries. They weren’t happy about it, but they were grateful. They could play in half of Western Europe. They could compete in 50-60 tournaments a year. They could accept that.
“We’ve been lucky in our sport. We’ve escaped the wrath of SANROC (South African Non Racial Olympic Committee, a London-based anti-apartheid lobby) and the other organizations that have tried to stop international sport in this country. Now, that’s changed. Tennis is in the Olympics, and all of a sudden, professional tennis in this country comes under the microscope of the Olympic Charter. I have very, very strong views about that. I think it’s steeped in hypocrisy. What the ITF has done is hypocritical in the extreme.”
Moore believes that ITF President Phillipe Chatrier worked with Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, to get tennis into the Games because Samaranch loves tennis. He had promised to help Chatrier become an IOC representative. So, the personal agenda of these two men changed tennis forever.
South Africa was a founding member of the ITF in 1913 and has been in Davis Cup competition since its inception. Yet since apartheid was installed in South Africa in 1948, there has continually been some form of protest in the tennis community. The only time South Africa won the Davis Cup was in 1974, by default, the only default in the finals in the Cup’s 90-year history.
India refused to play South Africa in protest against apartheid. Four years later, South Africa voluntarily withdrew from Davis Cup competition.
American Davis Cup stalwart John McEnroe has been a consistently strong critic of apartheid, having once turned down $1 million to play an exhibition in South Africa.
McEnroe also told Ashe, a former U.S. Davis Cup captain, that he would never play on a Davis Cup team with Curren or Kriek, both former South Africans who have U.S. citizenship.
Some countries are stepping up the pressure, too. Israel played India in the Davis Cup quarterfinals in 1987. In order to gain visas for India, Israeli players Amos Mansdorf and Shlomo Glickstein signed statements denouncing apartheid and pledging not to play in South Africa.
A few months later, Mansdorf competed in the South African Open and said he didn’t feel in any way bound by the pledge.
The campaign against South African tennis players has been stepped up recently. Sam Ramsamy, leader of SANROC, singled out South African tennis players as targets of a new campaign to isolate South Africa. Ramsamy said his group had worked out a “secret strategy” to do this.
The strategy may be secret, but it certainly appears to be little more than a combination of increased vigilance and louder protests.
The Australian Open in January was an example of the intensified pressure.
Officials permitted the Australian Anti-Apartheid Movement to hang banners on center court and distribute leaflets. South African players in the tournament were picketed. Trade unions threatened to disrupt the event. At least one South African, Van Rensburg, had to be escorted to and from his matches by a security guard.
There was even some speculation that this year’s Australian Open might have been the last for South African tennis players. The Australian government has a policy of barring teams representing South Africa, but admitting individuals. There is a good chance that the policy may be changed to exclude all South African athletes.
“We must get them to tournaments; the way to improve at tennis is you must have competition,” Moore said. “If you don’t have competition, you will stagnate. A good example of that is Russia. In 1974, Russia decided they would no longer send their players on the international tennis tour because of South Africa’s participation in international tennis events.
“They stopped sending players. They continued to play (in the Soviet Union). They had money, they had facilities, they had trainers. And they produced nobody. They played in the Davis Cup only and they routinely lost in the first round. It was self-imposed isolation for 10 years. Then they changed their minds around 1984-85 and they decided to get back into international tennis. From that time forward, they have produced players.”
South African tennis officials speak about their sport as being non-racial.
By this, they mean that SATU-affiliated tournaments may not bar non-whites from playing, as they did in the past. Tennis officials say the sport is popular among blacks, yet the expense of equipment and facilities puts the game financially out of reach for most black South Africans.
Interestingly, South African tennis officials speak proudly of what the SATU has done to promote the sport among blacks. However, the gap between rhetoric and reality is vast.
Soweto, the sprawling black township west of Johannesburg, has a population of 2.5 million and a total of 16 tennis courts.
The Arthur Ashe Tennis Center is in the Shangoville section of Soweto. Construction began in 1978. Phase I is not finished.
In fact, today the courts are abandoned, the nets are long since blown away, and what remain of the fences around the courts hang and droop like shrugged shoulders.
A few children play near the courts but not on them. One boy sits high in a wooden umpire’s chair, seeming to enjoy the view.
But in tennis terms, there’s not much to see. Despite SATU officials’ claims that they pour millions of rands into township tennis programs, there is little evidence of their expenditure. Johannesburg’s largest townships, Soweto and Alexandra, have tennis courts, but all are in disrepair.
“They tell us that blacks cannot play tennis, that we do not know how,” said Kapi Tkwana, who is on a youth sports committee in Alexandra. He waved a hand at a cracked and peeling court. “Not even Boris Becker could play tennis on that.”
Moore’s frustrations pour out. Politics, money, delicate negotiations and coping with sanctions take their toll.
He says the time has come to lift sanctions and reduce the pressure.
“It’s like you have a naughty child,” he said. “You have a naughty child and you spank him and you spank him and you spank him. Finally, there comes a time when you must stop spanking the child, otherwise you are going to end up with a monster. We are in that situation now. You guys have been spanking us and spanking us. When are you going to give us a little encouragement? We’ve done everything possible in tennis. We fly in the face of government opinion. We’ve come out publicly against apartheid. What more is there for us to do?”
Organizers of non-white tennis here say there’s plenty to be done, beginning with providing facilities in the townships, not busing black children to tennis courts in white areas.
They also say all foreign tennis players should stay out of South Africa until apartheid is gone. The influx of professional players at tournaments in white areas only further segregates the sport, they say.
All sides agree on one thing: There is little that is fair about the current situation.
“South Africa violates human rights, let’s accept that,” Moore said. “I’m not proud of it. It’s a fact of life. But if you go to Amnesty International, which I have done, and you’ll see they have an A category and a B and a C category, and South Africa is not in the A category of the worst violators of human rights. But in the A category, you are going to find many, many countries that are respected members of the IOC and that play Davis Cup--Iran, Syria, Libya to start with. These are known terrorist countries. They blow airliners out of the sky.
“Iran is playing in Davis Cup this year. They will be in the Olympics. The U.S. will send an American Davis Cup team and an American Olympic team to play in those two competitions, and you still say, ‘South Africa, pariah nation, no way, terrible country, you can’t play with them.’ How can you do that?”