Twenty-one years after it was expelled from Olympic competition for its racially discriminatory policy of apartheid, South Africa won readmission from the International Olympic Committee here Tuesday, opening the door for South African athletes to participate in the 1992 Olympic Games.
The historic decision, based largely on the South African Parliament's repeal of key apartheid statutes in June, is expected to give a big boost to the reform movement of South African President Frederik W. de Klerk. It is an important step toward ending South Africa's status as a sports pariah, banned from playing fields and arenas the world around.
South Africa last competed in the Olympics with an all-white team at the 1960 Games in Rome. It was formally expelled from the Olympic movement in 1970.
"It is a very important day, not only for the Olympic movement but for all sports around the world," International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch said Tuesday. "I would like to see very soon athletes and players from South Africa taking part in major sports competition around the world."
The IOC's "outright recognition" of the multiracial National Olympic Committee of South Africa as a member of the Olympic movement came after a day of talks between the South Africans and the "Apartheid and Olympism" commission of the IOC. Monitoring the talks were representatives of the Assn. of National Olympic Committees of Africa, an international association of African nations whose approval was considered key to South Africa's Olympics re-entry.
The president of the National Olympic Committees of Africa, Jean-Claude Ganga, described the readmission as "a political decision to help point them (the South Africans) in the right direction."
"We will know we have succeeded," said Ganga, "when we see a black South African win a race and watch the whites cry when they see their flag raised and their anthem played."
Members of the newly recognized South African committee reacted to the decision with cautious optimism. Although the South African committee is blessed by De Klerk, a reformist president, and has representatives from nearly every major Olympic sport except bobsledding, it has not won total acceptance from hard-core white Afrikaners.
Sam Ramsamy, president of the South African committee, said, "We believe that the recognition we got today will change the backward attitudes of some of the communities in South Africa."
Ramsamy said it was at the request of his group that the IOC commission studying South Africa's candidacy added a phrase to its approval warning the South African government that the approval is subject to a review of implementation of other reforms in South African athletics, including remedying the glaring inequalities of facilities in black and white areas.
"We wanted teeth, and the IOC gave us teeth," Ramsamy said. The message the IOC wants to leave, he indicated, is that as long as South Africa continues on its present path of reform, in sports as well as other domains, it is in line to receive a formal invitation to the Olympic Games.
"There is still the question of one man, one vote to resolve," said South African attorney Issy Kramer, a member of the new National Olympic Committee and president of the South African swimming association.
In Washington, Administration officials said President Bush will act later this week to lift the U.S. economic sanctions imposed on South Africa in 1986. Officials said the President will certify that the Pretoria government has met all the conditions set out in the sanctions legislation, which Congress passed over the veto of then-President Ronald Reagan.
However, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Washington will retain a 28-year-old embargo on arms sales to South Africa and will continue to honor sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council.
State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Secretary of State James A. Baker III has submitted a report to the White House on the release of political prisoners. Under the 1986 act, all political prisoners must be set free before the sanctions can be lifted.
Perhaps even more than economic sanctions, trade restrictions and bans on performing artists, the international exclusion of South African sporting teams has been a consistent sore point for South Africans.
At one point in its 30-year quest to find someone to compete against on world playing fields, the white-dominated South African government even appointed a "sports ambassador" to travel the world to meet with potential opponents. He resigned after one year on the job.
The pressure on South Africa began as early as 1956, when the International Table Tennis Federation expelled the all-white South Africa Table Tennis Union.
After South Africa's last Olympics competition at the 1960 games in Rome, the country received a formal invitation to the 1964 Games in Tokyo, but the invitation was withdrawn when it became clear that South Africa again planned to field an all-white team.
A proposal by South African officials to send a separate black team that year that would compete under the banner of the International Olympic Committee or the United Nations was rejected. The specter of apartheid and South Africa's sports policy has played a role in nearly every Olympic competition since 1984.
In the prelude to the politically charged 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, for example, a bloc of African nations threatened to boycott the games if South Africa was invited. The 1976 Games in Montreal were boycotted by 36 African nations angered by the IOC's decision to permit New Zealand to participate. New Zealand had angered apartheid foes by allowing a rugby team to tour South Africa.
Sport is a passion for many South Africans, white and black alike. Before international pressure mounted against them, white South Africa produced world-class rugby and cricket squads. Black athletes excelled in segregated soccer leagues.
But under the racist laws of apartheid, black and white athletes were forbidden to compete side by side. Open trials and competition were prohibited. The athletic potential of millions of blacks was left untapped. The ability of promising white athletes to compete in international arenas was checked by the government's laws.
As in the United States, sports provided powerful leverage for the integration of society. Said Kevan Gosper, a member of the IOC's apartheid commission: "I think it proves that sport can be a catalyst for real change--a catalyst for good."
The sports boycott forced white South Africans to accept multiracial competition in principle, and for some years now such athletic events as track and field meets have been multiracial. Blacks and whites who under apartheid could not even swim together from the same beach were eventually permitted to compete in adjacent lanes.
The South African Parliament removed the last legal pillar of apartheid in June--although anti-apartheid groups contend that much legal racial discrimination remains. Most schools, for example, remain segregated, but South Africa has made considerable progress in forming "non-racial" sport bodies.
Times staff writers Julie Cart in Los Angeles, Scott Kraft in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this story.