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Reforms Raise Hopes of End to South African Sports Boycott

May 2, 1990 GMT

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ White sports leaders are hoping political reforms will crack an international sports boycott and give oustanding white and black South African athletes a chance to compete overseas after decades of isolation.

President F.W. de Klerk’s pledge to end white minority rule has eased South Africa’s international isolation and raised hopes that the ban on sports contacts to protest apartheid might be relaxed.

For sports-obsessed whites, the sports boycott imposed since the 1960s has proved far more distressing than economics sanctions, diplomatic protests and other punitive measures. The boycott has kept South African teams and athletes out of world events in a nation that prides itself on its prowess on the playing field.

South Africa produces world-class athletes in rugby, cricket, boxing, golf, tennis and distance running. Yet many of the country’s best have seldom or never faced international competition due to the boycott that has grown progressively tighter during the past two decades.

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.″

White sports officials have been lobbying for international sports organizations to re-examine South Africa’s status, and there’s some evidence they are willing to take a new look.

The International Rugby Board has given the South African Rugby Board permission to invite a foreign squad to South Africa for the first time in years. When the president of the French Rugby Union, Albert Ferrasse, visited South Africa recently, he met with de Klerk, showing how highly the government rates sports matters.

The South African National Olympic Committee is optimistic that South Africa, which last competed in the 1960 Olympics, could return to the games by 1996.

″The world is ready to accept South Africa back into the international fold″ once a political solution is found, said Johan du Plessis, president of the South African National Olympic Committee.

Du Plessis said that three unidentified African countries were preparing a report on sport in South Africa.

″If this report ... is favorable, there is a good chance that we could be part of the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo,″ du Plessis said.

The International Olympic Committee this week said more had to be done before it would welcome South Africa back. But Michele Verdier, the IOC spokeswoman, said that the IOC was ″encouraging other African athletes to have contacts with their colleagues in South Africa on the issue of apartheid.″

The boycott has been particularly effective against rugby and cricket, the most popular sports among whites. The boycott has had less impact on individual sports such as golf, tennis and boxing, where big prize money has lured top performers to South Africa.

Anti-apartheid groups have promised staunch opposition to any attempts to bring foreign athletes to South Africa.

A rebel English cricket squad, led by Mike Gatting, faced almost daily protests after they arrived in January and the six-week tour was called off after three weeks. The players reportedly received $160,000 each.

″The cricket tour should serve as an instructive lesson to other sports,″ said Krish Naidoo, head of the National Sports Congress, which organized the protests.

After the tour was abandoned, irate white sports fans called in to radio talk shows and wrote to newspapers venting their frustration, saying politics should not interfere with their beloved sports.

″Can one blame the far right (whites) and the bigots when they say: ’Let’s get back to the ’60s when blacks weren’t even allowed to watch, never mind play,‴ wrote one angry reader.

Ebrahim said the outrage expressed by many whites is exactly why the sports boycott should stay.

″Sports offers a temporary escape from the pressures of life,″ he said. ″The boycott brings home forcefully that whites can’t escape the reality of what’s happening in this country.″

Formal racial barriers have been eliminated from the top level of South African sports and virtually every nationwide sports organization supports integration.

The head of the South African Cricket Union, Ali Bacher said recently he believes ″sport in South Africa has the potential to reconcile the races that apartheid has split.″

The Rugby Board, a private organization, has spent $3 million in the past decade to improve facilities for blacks.

But public schools remain segregated and most competitions at the scholastic level are held along racial lines. Black sports facilities are far inferior compared to those of whites.

Soweto, the township outside Johannesburg with 2.5 million residents, has only 16 tennis courts, according to Ethel Radebe, general secretary of the black-oriented Tennis Federation of South Africa.

″There is no justification for international tours when there is no money being spent on facilities in the townships,″ she said.

Ironically, the sports boycott has proved virtually airtight when it comes to blacks. In contrast, a number of whites have managed outstanding careers internationally.

The sole black South African excelling internationally is Welcome Ncita, who became the International Boxing Federation’s junior featherweight champion in March.

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