After 40 gloriously intransigent, unswervingly obstinate years, Avery Brundage compromised. Last Friday he sat behind a battery of nine microphones and five TV-movie cameras—his left hand working nervously in and out of his pocket—and suggested that he'd had a second thought. A second thought. It was a startling and historic experience, and the climax of what was probably the most contentious week in the ever-troubled life of Avery Brundage, for very possibly the 1968 Olympics were at stake.
To be sure, the language of his turnabout was discreet, even obscure. "The president," said Brundage, abandoning for once the first person singular pronoun that normally decorates his conversation on official Olympic matters, "has decided to call a special meeting of the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee and is consulting members to establish a convenient date." It was a statement that old Brundage watchers could translate clearly enough: The Olympians—i.e., Brundage—were going to take a second look at the " South African affair." And procrastinate. Steadfastly, tenaciously, unflinchingly procrastinate.
The South African affair is the latest and most serious scrimmage in that long and enduring contest for supremacy between sports and politics. Avery Brundage, who for the past 16 years has been president of the International Olympic Committee, has never had many doubts on this issue. "Sport transcends politics," he said an Olympiad or so ago. "It is an international phenomenon, like science or music." He likes to believe that the Olympics have an almost supernal power for spreading goodwill and fellowship, that they are the only thing that has prevented one half of the world from giving the other half 24 hours to get out. He cites the German example—and it is almost a good one. For years politicians tried to find a way to get East and West Germany together, but the two factions refused to get close enough even to spit in each other's scars. Yet for three Olympic Games preceding Grenoble the two Germanys sent a joint team.
The South African affair could be an even greater triumph. Or it could destroy the Olympics, since it involves the most malignant of man's emotions: his hatred for those that are different.
The dilemma began more than four years ago when the South Africans requested permission to send athletes to the Olympic Games. It was not the government that made the request; Brundage does not talk to politicians, he does not like to step down in class. It was a properly constituted national Olympic committee. Brundage scrutinized the request carefully to see if it had a political label on it, one that might be treasonable. What he found was that it was not simply the politics but the very spirit of South Africa that violated the Olympic code.
South Africa was set up socially, economically and politically—in every way that man could devise—on the basis of a separation of the races, with the "colored" and Negroes the disadvantaged group. There was no question but that Negroes would not be freely picked by the South African Olympic Committee to compete in the Olympics. The Olympic code bars such discrimination; the second paragraph of its "fundamental principles"—repeated in the eligibility code—specifically states that "no discrimination is allowed against any country or person on the grounds of race, religion, or political affiliation."
So the International Olympic Committee told the South Africans no. South Africa would have to change its method of team selection before the Olympics—or Avery Brundage—changed. No South Africans competed in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
But since then South Africa, a very sports-minded country, has changed. Not socially, economically or politically. Just with respect to its Olympic team. It agreed to allow nonwhites to compete for places on the team and guaranteed that they could live without discrimination or segregation with the team at the Olympics. It guaranteed that the team selection committee would be representative of all the races, and has since set up an eight-man committee—four whites and four nonwhites. These were not easy concessions for South Africa to make, in view of its internal policies. "The politicians could not have done this," says Brundage. "It was a real achievement."
On February 15 Brundage announced that a majority of the 72-man voting body on the IOC had agreed that the South African Olympic Committee was meeting the standards demanded by the Olympic rules and would be permitted to send a team to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
The Black African nations reacted to this like quail to the sound of bird shot. They began taking off in all directions and threatening to drop out of the Olympics unless the vote were reversed. The notion spread with the contagion of corruption. By last week some 32 nations of Black Africa were in the threatened walkout and others—India, Malaysia, Cuba, Pakistan and several Middle East nations—were joining them.