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Gymnastics Opens Door to South Africa : World championships: Despite protests, international federation is happy to have that country rejoin competition now, rather than waiting.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saying they chose sport over politics, officials of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) Thursday defended, and delighted in, their politically defiant decision to allow South Africa to compete in the World Gymnastics Championships, which start Saturday.

South Africa’s participation will mark the country’s return to international competition after more than two decades of being shunned because of racial policies. South African gymnasts have not competed in this event in 25 years.

At a news conference at the Hoosier Dome, FIG president Yuri Titov said that the body is satisfied that the South African Amateur Gymnastics Union has pursued a nonracial course and has been successful at integrating its athletes, especially in its development programs.

The FIG said in a written statement: “The South African Amateur Gymnastics Union (SAAGU) has had uninterrupted membership in the FIG since 1947. . . . On the basis of that relationship, as well as information gathered by us since July, we are satisfied that South Africa has satisfied the requirements for participating in international gymnastics competition.”

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A pleased Titov, of the Soviet Union, said that Wednesday night’s decision to allow South Africa to compete was made after “numerous meetings” about political considerations and possible boycotts or protests by participating countries.

Attending Thursday’s news conference were two black coaches and six white gymnasts from South Africa, who will march under their country’s flag in tonight’s opening ceremony.

“We will make history,” said 15-year-old Leigh-Ann Biggs of Johannesburg. “And we will get to see gymnasts in person that we have only seen before on TV.”

Three women--a fourth is injured--and two men will compete as individuals, because not enough South African gymnasts qualified to enter the team competition.

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The women, who arrived last Friday, said they were not told there was a possibility of their not competing. It wasn’t until they heard shouts and laughter of South African officials in the hall outside their hotel rooms Wednesday night that they realized what was happening.

“They had just heard the news, and they were hugging each other,” Biggs said. “We didn’t know there was a problem. They didn’t want to worry us.”

The International Olympic Committee banned South Africa from the Olympics in 1970 because of its policy of apartheid, or racial separation, then readmitted the country in July after the South African Parliament had repealed key apartheid statutes.

The gymnastics decision may be controversial--many countries maintain that changes in South Africa are merely cosmetic--but because the World Championships will serve as a qualifying meet for the 1992 Olympics, the FIG has held the trump card. It was a key factor in a political equation that worked as much in favor of South Africa’s participation as it did against countries opposing the decision.

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“If you are the sports federation or the person responsible for the decision and this is your country’s only chance to qualify for the Olympics, what would you do?” asked Jim Barry, a member of the FIG executive committee and also president of Australia’s gymnastics federation.

Australia, the first country to voice opposition Thursday, said it will compete under protest. Peggy Browne, executive director of Australia’s gymnastics federation, said that South Africa’s participation will place Australia in direct violation of the Gleneagles agreement, a policy adopted by the British Commonwealth governments of Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand and Canada that forbids direct contact with South Africa.

A representative of the World Championships Organizing Committee said that the other Commonwealth countries also were competing under protest.

But the political problems of South Africa’s participation are not only external. The country’s gymnastics union is apparently in a power struggle with the National Olympic Committee of South Africa, which has not accepted SAAGU as a member and told SAAGU it could not compete in the World Championships.

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“They wanted us to wait until Nov. 1, when they say they will lift the moratorium so everyone can compete,” said Alan Daly, the top male gymnast in South Africa. “We said, ‘No, we are going to the World Championships.’ ”

Kobus Scheepers, chief of South Africa’s delegation here, said that the gymnastics dispute centers on the national committee’s effort to control SAAGU, which wants autonomy. Others have pointed to the IOC, saying it has asked South Africa to take time and get its affairs in order before it begins competing.

“Everybody needs power,” said Jerry Masia, a gymnastics coach for South Africa. “Sometimes I don’t understand what it’s all about. We are nonracial and unified and will be recognized by the national committee as a federation.”

Masia, who is black, has been coaching in South Africa since 1983, when SAAGU launched a development program to include blacks. He says because the program is so new, black gymnasts have not yet reached the skill level of the white gymnasts.

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Scheepers said he did not keep statistics on how many black gymnasts there are in South Africa’s programs. When pressed for a ratio of blacks to whites, he would only say that the ratio is “very good.”

Marie Thickitt, one of South Africa’s top gymnasts who will not compete here because of an injury, said there are no black gymnasts at the national training center, where she trains, but that she has seen a difference in other clubs.

“It used to be that black gymnasts weren’t in any of the suburb gym clubs because they weren’t allowed,” Thickitt, 15, said. “But now, black people are allowed to live with us, so there are a lot of girls coming into the clubs.

“We actually sold our house and a black family bought it. I think it is wonderful that they can live and compete with us now.”

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