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William Oscar Johnson
August 03, 1992
The presence of Nelson Mandela marked the momentous return of a former pariah
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August 03, 1992

Welcome Back

The presence of Nelson Mandela marked the momentous return of a former pariah

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Amid the political infighting Petranoff still emerged as the second-most-likely medal contender on the South African team, behind Elana Meyer, the 10,000-meter star.

In early June, Petranoff went to train in Helsinki, assuming all along that his place on the South African Olympic team was secure. Then, barely a week before the Games began, black members of Athletics South Africa (ASA), the national track and field federation, suddenly began questioning his place on the team. They recalled his old role as a sanctions-buster, they said he had accused the ANC of playing politics with sports, and they asked that he send a letter of explanation. Within days Petranoff wrote to the ASA and the NOCSA (National Olympic Committee of South Africa) in a boyish hand, replete with misspellings and grammatical errors: "Firstly, I would like to apologize to you and your organization any grief caused by my 1988 rebel tour to South Africa. I was politically nieve and obviosly did not understand your struggle and reasons for the moratorium.... I have had 2 South African girls born in JoBerg and I plan to spend the rest of my life in South Africa. Even if you don't feel I should go to Barcelona."

In the end Petranoff's name was left off the team list, and the emotions surrounding his suspension were soon lost amid the euphoria of South Africa's rebirth.

Given the Petranoff controversy, it is probably best for now simply to recall the scene of Mandela giving his pep talk to an integrated team in the Olympic Village and then singling out two white members, Meyer and tennis player Wayne Ferreira, and saying, "We are counting on you." In recalling that scene, let us remember that when the last Summer Olympics were about to begin, in Seoul in 1988, this same heroic man—unseen and unheard by the world since 1964—was still serving what would be nearly 28 years in prison, a leading martyr to apartheid.

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