When Team South Africa showed up in Barcelona 20 years ago, it was their first appearance at the Olympics in more than three decades. Generations of South African athletes had moldered while their country suffered the greatest penalty the International Olympic Committee has ever imposed, because their political leaders persisted in defending white minority rule. When the ban finally ended, South Africa wanted more than a participation ribbon to mark its return to the global stage.1 It needed something to celebrate and an affirmation of the future’s shining possibilities before the world community that had shamed them. Elana Meyer was their best chance.
On August 7, barely four months after the repeal of apartheid, the second-ever women’s 10,000-meter final begins in the Estadi Olímpic. Meyer is brisk, the woman in green and yellow. Simmering with energy and a soft, surging stride, Meyer holds court at the front of the pack for thousands of meters. Picking up on her confidence, a broadcaster calls her “the hope of South Africa.” She has the certainty of purpose of a runner who missed the chance to compete in her prime at the Olympics in Seoul and Los Angeles. But 29:28 minutes into the race, Meyer looks back to see an increasingly aggressive Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia on her tail. While Meyer is a portrait of strain by now, Tulu, in her modest T-shirt and shorts, looks like she’s out for an afternoon jog. Just before the final 400 meters, you can see the instant when Tulu makes her decision, a flash of lightning cast upon her face: Now. Tulu passes Meyer. Both runners lap the stragglers of the race. Tulu looks back. But she’s not worried. Though she will sweep into a first-place finish either way, Tulu puts heat on the final seconds and beats Meyer by 30 meters to become the first black African woman to win an individual Olympic gold. Tulu’s victory is a surprise — at least one announcer allegedly identified her as Kenyan — and her finish will inspire the first great generation of female distance runners in Ethiopia, now among the most formidable competitors in the world.
More than five seconds after Tulu, “the hope of South Africa” heaves over the finish line for the silver. She staggers to a stop and puts her hands over her face as if she is pushing away the eye of the camera. But then she raises her weary arms in the sign of a champion.
Rather than a gold medal, it was a white Afrikaner’s graceful loss to a black African that was taken to herald a new, just, and multiracial South Africa. The symbolism was not lost on President Nelson Mandela, who said in a speech in 1995: “South Africa remembers with pride the magnanimity in defeat which Elana Meyer demonstrated in Barcelona, when she proclaimed with her vanquisher the sanctity of the Olympic principle that participation is more important than winning.”
It’s a heartening thought. But the story of the most significant national penalty in Olympic history reveals the pick-and-choose politics of bans and suspensions. A global sports boycott was one way of pushing back, but it was exceedingly complicated to carry out and, for many people, life-threatening. To this day, South African race relations are prickly, and ethnicity shapes who participates in elite sports. Meanwhile, after the IOC wielded banishment as a high-profile act of resistance, this year’s inclusion of Syria (which is sending its biggest delegation since 1980) and Saudi Arabia makes one wonder if they will ever seriously do it again.
When “Papwa” Sewgolum, an Indian–South African, won the Natal Open Golf Championship in 1962, he wasn’t allowed in the clubhouse where whites were celebrating. A gloomy photo of him accepting his trophy outside in the heavy rain made front pages around the world and amped up the fledgling movement to boycott apartheid sports. The government eventually banned Papwa from all major South African tournaments and revoked his passport, preventing him from playing internationally.2
This is hardly an exceptional story. During the 1964 Winter Olympics, South African politicians insisted that they would not racially integrate the team. (Not that their racist system proved effective: The country hadn’t won an Olympic gold medal since 1952.) In response, an infuriated IOC withdrew its invitation for South Africa to participate in the Summer Games later that year in Tokyo. South Africa danced around a last-minute compromise, offering to bring seven non-white athletes to the Olympics (on a 62-member national team — not all that far from the 2012 ratio). The IOC, unmoved,3 gave South Africa an ultimatum: If it publicly condemned apartheid and integrated athletic competitions, it would be reinvited. Appalled, South Africa pulled out of negotiations altogether and issued a hilariously unironic retort, accusing the IOC of introducing politics into sports. The IOC summarily banned South Africa from Olympic competition.4
By 1968, South Africa was getting restless. It promised to bring an integrated Olympic team to Mexico City if the IOC overturned the ban, but the regime remained racist: South Africa still segregated its Olympic trials. Thirty-nine nations threatened to boycott the Games if the ban were lifted, and South Africa remained shut out. That same year, the United Nations called for a suspension on all sports with South African institutions that practiced apartheid. In 1970, South Africa was expelled from the IOC.
To further pressure South Africa, countries with a shoulder-shrugging relationship to the boycott became themselves the target of protest. Thirty-three nations, most of them African, abruptly pulled 300 athletes from the 1976 Games in Montreal in objection to the IOC’s refusal to put sanctions on New Zealand, which had sent its rugby team on a South African tour. Most athletes, including two world-record holders, were already in Montreal and had to fly back home.
The boycott did not only come from the international community: Activists had agitated from inside for decades. The South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SAN-ROC) formed in 1963 to challenge the country’s official (read: white) Olympic committee and persuade other nations to support the suspension of apartheid South Africa from international competition. Athletes from the country’s Indian community had experimented with integrated governing bodies as a challenge to existing apartheid ones. A “non-racial” board for table tennis successfully lobbied the international federation to recognize it in 1956 and expel its white-only counterpart. But the apartheid regime began refusing passports to athletes who didn’t compete through white sports associations. Dennis Brutus, president of SAN-ROC, tried to get to an IOC meeting to discuss South Africa’s future in the Olympics, but he, too, was eventually denied a passport. Brutus was also served with “banning orders” that put harsh restrictions on his movement, activities, and associations. When he met with a Swiss journalist, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. He escaped and fled to Mozambique, where the Portuguese secret police arrested him and turned him over to South African authorities. Brutus again tried to escape; this time, he was shot point-blank in the back. He survived, but was incarcerated on Robben Island alongside Mandela.5 Brutus was breaking rocks at the infamous prison colony when he heard that his campaign succeeded: South Africa was banned from the Olympics.
The authorities doubled down. Realizing the threat to the rigid custom of sports segregation, the apartheid regime officially prohibited mixed sports and even mixed audiences, except by permit. Unsurprisingly, permits were rare. When granted, spectators were separated by race, with six-foot wire fences looming between then. Organizers had to provide segregated entrances, bathrooms, and concessions.
In 1980, the U.N. Special Committee Against Apartheid created a register of athletes who participated in events with South Africa. Governments of all sizes, including city councils, denied listed athletes the use of sports facilities. On the other end of the movement, the U.N. committee championed athletes and administrators who contributed to the boycott of apartheid sports. But these were final straws. There was simply no more the world could do. By the 1980s, South Africa was expelled from just about every international competition and sports association. And just to turn the screw a little tighter, the IOC adopted a declaration around the same time as the 1988 Seoul Olympics that called for the total isolation of countries that practiced “apartheid in sport.”
It was hard to be an athlete in South Africa in those dark days. Basil D’Oliveira, a world-class cricket player, didn’t get far in the “coloured” leagues (the local term for people whose mixed heritage goes back at least a generation). He wrote in desperation to a famed cricket commentator in Britain to ask for help. Already past his peak years, D’Oliveira immigrated to England in 1960 and played for his adopted country’s national team. When he went with that team on a South Africa tour, he met with mass outrage. The tour was cut short.
Barefoot runner Zola Budd broke the world record in the 5,000-meter in 1984, but since the race took place in South Africa, the International Amateur Athletic Federation refused to ratify her time. Budd, still a teenager, applied for British citizenship. With the help of a little family history and a big public campaign organized by the Daily Mail, she speedily became a U.K. citizen, just in time for the 1984 Olympics — where she was the one to accidentally collide with American Mary Decker in the 3,000-meter race. She had already been harassed by British anti-apartheid activists who saw her as a symbol of South African white privilege, sidestepping sanctions for personal gain, and now she finished her race in a stadium resounding with boos and heckles. Meanwhile, Sydney Maree was a black athlete trotted out by South Africa on propaganda trips. He had to find his way to the U.S. and receive dual citizenship before he could run in the Olympics, albeit under the American flag. In 1983, he briefly held the world record in the 1,500-meter, and then bested his own record when he broke 3:30 not long later.
But most athletes didn’t get out. In the twilight years of apartheid, marathoner Willie Mtolo wrote a passionate letter to the IAAF, pleading for South Africa’s readmission to international competition. “Because I am a black person, I have been a victim of apartheid, but never in running,” he wrote. “I am capable of running a sub-2:08 marathon. I will not be able to do this forever.” Elana Meyer, who won the Foot of Africa half-marathon in 1980 when she was 13 years old, didn’t get to compete against the world’s best until her showdown in Barcelona. “Most South African athletes went through their whole career without the chance to compete internationally,” Meyer said in a Running Times interview. “It was sad and frustrating … ”
For all the trouble, Meyer doesn’t think the sports boycott did much of anything except limit South African athletes. “It was the economic boycotts that made our politicians take note, not the sporting ones,” she said. “I believe in freedom, and opportunity for all, and achievement, and my life’s work now is about those. So what was the boycott really for?” She isn’t alone. Ali Bacher, who was South Africa’s top cricket administrator, planned “rebel tours” for athletes from abroad who could be persuaded — often with a fair share of cash — to break the boycott.
“In the 1980s I felt that apartheid would be around for the rest of my life which meant we would be isolated for life,” Bacher said in a 2004 interview. “I was also a professional cricket administrator and it was my job was [sic] to keep the game alive in South Africa. The game was stagnating in my country.” The last rebel tour was in 1990 against England. The two black athletes on the British team both withdrew. Meeting with massive protests — public demonstrations had just become legal and, mid-tour, Mandela was released from prison — the six-week tour was canceled after three weeks. Mike Gatting, England’s former captain, got a three-year ban from the sport.
It can’t help but be noticed that most of the people who describe the sports boycott as devastating to both individual athletes and to the growth of certain sports are white. In a 1977 survey, white South Africans ranked the lack of international sports participation as one of the most damaging consequences of apartheid. But in the waning years of apartheid, as South Africa experimented with loosening restrictions in a superficial effort to appease the international sports community, black South Africans largely saw the boycott as something damaging but purposeful. From a 1990 Associated Press report headlined “Reforms Raise Hopes of End to South African Sports Boycott”:
Black activists say they will oppose foreign sports contacts with South Africa until apartheid is ended and blacks have equal opportunities on the playing fields.
”The present sports boycott should not be relaxed whatsoever,” said Joe Ebrahim, president of the anti-apartheid South African Council on Sport. ”The sports boycott is one of the most effective, non-violent methods of pressure on the government.”
Mandela himself named apartheid — rather than the boycott, per se — as the true cause of suffering experienced by South African athletes: “The great majority of our sports people, of every color, recognized clearly that the abnormal practices of apartheid severely handicapped their development and stature, at home and abroad.”
Richard Lapchick was a friend and student of Dennis Brutus. Lapchick, who joined Brutus in organizing the first U.S. sports protest against South Africa, expressed a heated view on ESPN.com after Brutus died in 2009.
To this day, [South Africa under apartheid] was the only regime that the world came together to isolate in peacetime. There were oil, trade, bank loan and sports boycotts. Oil can be smuggled and trade restrictions circumvented. Some banks made loans that kept the regime afloat. But there is no black market for games, and the sports boycott became South Africa’s Achilles’ heel.
Mandela, it seems, agreed. Like the boycotters, he showed it not just with words, but with action. Writes Lapchick:
I was invited by Mandela to his inauguration in May 1994. After the inauguration, instead of attending the diplomatic parties in Pretoria, he flew by helicopter to Johannesburg to watch a soccer match between South Africa and Zambia. In his box at the game, I asked him, “Mr. President, why did you come here and not go to the parties being held in your honor?” His response was clear: “I wanted my people to know that I became president sooner because of the sacrifices made by our athletes during the years of the boycott.”
The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit.
[ … ]
Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.
That’s how the IOC describes its vision. (It awkwardly calls this sentiment “Olympism.”) So who gets banned from the Olympics for contradicting this spirit of inclusion and equality? Kuwait is back in the Games this year after a two-year suspension for corruption in its national Olympic committee, and won its petition to carry its own flag, rather than the Olympic flag, in the opening ceremony. Taliban-led Afghanistan was banned from the 2000 Olympics because of its poor treatment of women, a precedent that makes the IOC indulgence of Saudi Arabia all the more maddening. Afghanistan was let back in for the 2004 Games in Athens, with two women on its national team.6
The IOC goes to great lengths to bring diversity to the Olympics, most notably by accepting a number of “wild card” athletes that wouldn’t otherwise qualify for the Games, but whose participation serves the greater Olympic spirit. This is how the two Saudi female athletes are going to London at the last second. Off-site, the IOC has all kinds of “development through sport” initiatives that are, for example, resurrecting Haiti’s athletic infrastructure. The IOC describes this work as building “a better world” through “concrete responses to social inequality.”
Sounds good to me. But there is the other edge to that power, an edge that the IOC appears unwilling to wield anymore.
If Elana Meyer’s cheerful Olympic defeat and the rousing Invictus story both evoke the enormous power of sports to build and heal, we might infer that sports have a proportional power to dismantle and destroy. By refusing to participate in sports of any kind with apartheid South Africa, the world athletic community, with the IOC as its most visible force, contributed to the defeat of the entrenched racist regime by withholding credibility from it. It made things harder and more humiliating for the apartheid government. But South Africa’s old government is not the only regime deserving this treatment. As global pressure mounts on the IOC to put real sanctions on Saudi Arabia — no one’s fooled by the token presentation of a couple women this year, though, as individual athletes, I wish those two Saudis the best — let’s not forget how powerful it is to say, “Enough.” Or: “No.” Or, like Derartu Tulu in Barcelona, “Now.”
People still talk about the Tulu-Meyer race. Even though a white woman came to symbolize newly de-racialized South Africa, the whole country took notice. As Meyer would describe it years later, “The whole nation watched the TV of that Barcelona race. The scale of the response was unexpected, overwhelming. People, white and black, still stop me to this day to tell me where they were when that race was run.”
Nowadays, South Africa is a major player. Besides its famed rugby championship in 1995, it hosted Africa’s first FIFA World Cup in 2010, the Champions League cricket tournament will be in South Africa this October, and, at the Olympics, two South African sprinters will be among the most watched athletes of all: Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius and Caster Semanya. It’s Semanya who will carry the South African flag. It’s her first Olympics.
Yet there’s no way to hide the racial division still plaguing sports in South Africa. The nation has won 19 medals in the Summer Games since Meyer toed the starting line 20 years ago, but only four were won by black athletes. By my rough count, outside field hockey and soccer, South Africa is bringing 79 athletes to the Games. Sixty-five of them are white, even though people who are black and coloured make up nearly 90 percent of the population.7 I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for this, and I’m sure one of those reasons is that there is still serious internal resistance to integration — perhaps particularly in sports, which are so fundamentally about the body in competition with other bodies. Twenty summers ago! It isn’t that long. If South Africa can continue to integrate to become a truly interracial nation, it will be brilliant to witness. Those of us living elsewhere: We have our own problems to deal with. But, yes, let’s go ahead and draw a lesson from the messy story of the worldwide sports boycott of apartheid South Africa. It’s this: Our choices matter.
Anna Clark (@annaleighclark) is an independent journalist living in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The Guardian, The Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. She edits the literary blog Isak.