Only months after South Africa’s all-white team was banned from the Olympic Games, Xolile Yawa was born into a poor black township home with a natural gift that apartheid could not destroy--the ability to run fast.
Now, at 28, Yawa is one of the top distance runners in his country and, probably, the world. He holds national records. His best 10,000-meter time of 27:39 would have placed him fourth in the 1988 Games at Seoul.
But running against the world’s best athletes was only a dream for Yawa until this week, when the International Olympic Committee took a first, conditional step toward readmitting South Africa to the fold.
“Ever since I was brought up, I have run here on South African soil,” Yawa said, pausing from his workout on a warm autumn day. “I’ve never run in America. Never in Europe. I’ve never run anywhere else. I want to experience that.”
If South Africa is accepted back into the IOC in time for the 1992 Games at Barcelona, Spain, Yawa will not only be part of the first South African Olympic team since 1960, he and a dozen or so others will be the first blacks to represent South Africa in the history of Olympic competition.
The IOC has given South Africa six months to meet five conditions for readmission. The conditions are: Abolish apartheid, comply with the Olympic Charter, resolve the differences between rival sports bodies in South Africa, pursue the unification of sports on a nonracial basis and bury the hatchet with sports organizations in the rest of Africa.
But invitations for the ’92 Summer Games will be issued in July. To be invited to those Games, South Africa would have to meet the IOC’s conditions within three months.
“It is a problem,” acknowledged Keba Mbaye of Senegal, the IOC vice president and head of an Olympic delegation that visited South Africa this week. But he added that it is not impossible.
The decision seems to hinge on what “abolishing apartheid” means to the IOC.
The South African government says it will have ended apartheid by late June, when Parliament has removed the three remaining legal pillars of racial privilege--laws segregating neighborhoods, denying blacks the opportunity to purchase land and classifying all citizens by race.
Will that be enough to satisfy the IOC and, especially, the influential African members of the IOC? No one knows for sure.
The IOC wants to give disadvantaged blacks the chance to participate in the Olympics as soon as possible. But it doesn’t want to be too hasty. The international sports boycott has helped to force millions of whites to treat blacks as equals. And until negotiations with blacks begin, South Africa still will be ruled by a white minority and its black population will remain voteless.
If South Africa doesn’t meet the IOC’s conditions by June, it will have to wait at least until the 1996 Games in Atlanta to field a Summer Olympic team. That will be too late for many of the most promising black and white athletes in South Africa today.
“I’d really like to be there (in Barcelona),” Yawa said, “because age is catching up with me.”
Most of South Africa’s athletes and coaches are optimistic, though, and training has taken on a quicker pace. “There’s a carrot now in front of them and that’s important,” said Kasie Geldenhuys, Yawa’s coach. “But if it (Barcelona) falls through, these guys will be completely demotivated.”
When South Africa does return to the Olympics, even the coaches aren’t sure how strong a team it will have. “Everything is an unknown quantity as far as South Africa is concerned. You don’t know what’s going to happen because these people have never been in international competition before,” said Gert le Roux, executive director of the 60,000-member South African Amateur Athletic Union.
The track and field medal contenders in Barcelona probably would include a host of whites: Myrtle Bothma and Dries Vorster in the 400-meter hurdles, distance runners Frith van der Merwe and Zola Budd Pieterse and sprinters Evette de Klerk and Karen Kruger. The black standouts include Yawa, sprinter Tshakile Nzimande and marathoners Willy Mtolo and David Tsebe.
Although all these athletes already have posted marks that place them among the best in the world, South African coaches say they will train harder and perform better with the Olympics as an incentive.
“If you look at the talent on the table, it’s absolutely fantastic,” said Stefan Ferreira, Tshakile Nzimande’s coach and a sports administrator with Anglo American Corp., the conglomerate that operates gold mines in the Welkom area.
“And if these guys get an opportunity to compete with the best in the world, their times will fall,” Ferreira said. Nzimande’s time in the 200 meters ranked 11th in the world last year.
Both Yawa and Nzimande are among Anglo American’s athletes. They both work in the front-offices of gold mines near Welkom, a town where discrimination against blacks remains a fact of life. And Anglo provides them with coaches and time off work to train and compete.
Yawa’s coach, Geldenhuys, 43, is a personnel supervisor at Anglo and a former distance runner. Nzimande’s coach, Ferreira, 35, also a former athlete, is a sports administrator, overseeing such things as the gold mines’ soccer league.
The white coaches acknowledge they sometimes are bitter about the long years of sporting isolation, which they believe denied many blacks, as well as whites, a rightful place in the world spotlight. “Many had tremendous talent, but they packed up or retired prematurely because there was no chance” to compete internationally, said the Amateur Athletic Union’s Le Roux.
Despite the pressure of the sports boycott, the drive for racial equality in South African sports was protracted. The first interracial track meet in the country didn’t occur until 1971, one year after South Africa was expelled from the IOC.
Had they been born in another country, Yawa and Nzimande already would have competed in one or two Olympic Games. But they have no regrets about the sports boycott. Looking back, they believe it was necessary.
“We didn’t know if we would ever get the chance to compete with the best in the world,” said Nzimande, 29. “But we wouldn’t be where we are now, with blacks and whites competing against each other,” without the boycott. “Most of our blacks are proving they are good, even though they don’t have the same facilities as whites.”
Said Yawa: “If they (sports bodies in South Africa) don’t sweep inside their house and we don’t get to go to Barcelona, that will be our bad luck. Maybe our kids will get to go.”