Oh, we are on the verge of everything, as far as I can see. Everything! It is time to go. Enough has happened, it is time, it is time. My god, how I hope it is time.
—MATTHEWS MOTSHWARATEU, 32, South Africa's 10,000-meter champion
The annual track and field championships in South Africa have long been affectionately dubbed "the champs" by track and field buffs in that country, although in recent years they have been underattended, undramatic affairs that international newspapers didn't even bother to cover. However, as the 1991 championships were played out over two immaculate autumn days last week in Pretoria's homey Pilditch Stadium, the attendance blossomed to 25,000, three times what it has been of late, and the press box was full. The mood was fairly festive, yet fraught with tension and an aura of uncertainty that can best be described as suspended disbelief. There was an extraordinary intensity to conversations throughout the meet, and they moved across a range of emotion, from high hope to high anxiety, from pure euphoria to raw fear.
In that, the champs of 1991 reflected precisely the current mood of all South Africa as it charges through yet another period of unrest in its relentlessly volatile history. Against a chilling backdrop that includes rampant bloodshed, massive unemployment, a soaring crime rate and a desperately wounded economy, South Africans of all colors are rushing furiously ahead to abolish the brutal rule of apartheid so that they can be invited back into a world that for three decades has banned or boycotted them in just about every avenue of international activity—from politics to commerce to art to sport. This isolation has strangled trade, starved business, deterred potential foreign investors and virtually erased South African sport from the map. Athletic competitions in the nation have been little more than a series of increasingly tiresome events between the same few athletes, over and over and over again.
Says Andre van Heerden, who publishes several sports magazines in Johannesburg: "Races were boring, tactical things. You could practically write the name on the trophy before the contest began. Spectators were way down—even the national soccer finals didn't draw. There was less money, fewer sponsors. Sport has virtually been lying on its deathbed."
Then, suddenly, last week, hope dawned that perhaps the isolation was over, both in sport and in commerce. In Luxembourg, the European Community announced that it had dropped its five year ban on imports of gold coins, iron and steel from South Africa, and, in Barcelona, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) declared that this pariah country, which was last allowed to field an Olympic team in 1960, would in all likelihood be warmly welcomed at the Barcelona Games of '92. In recent weeks, as South Africa seemed increasingly ready to abolish apartheid, officials of the world governing body for track and field, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), which in 1976 had expelled South Africa, a founding member, indicated that it was leaning toward readmitting the nation to full membership in time to participate in the World Championships in Tokyo in August.
The 1991 champs in Pretoria were, of course, a county-fair cakewalk by Olympic or IAAF standards. Yet those championships may stand as historic in that they mark the end of the isolation that began when South Africa's invitation to the 1964 Olympics was withdrawn because the country refused to send an integrated team to the Tokyo Games (six years later South Africa was officially banned by the IOC, and by the 1980s South African athletes were banned from competitions worldwide) as well as the beginning of a brave new era in which South African athletes at last will emerge from the iron cocoon of apartheid. Finally, they will be free to compete against opponents from other lands.
Particularly for the few South African athletes who possess world-class ability-over the years, South Africa has won only 52 Olympic medals—the breaking of the isolation will be like being born again. Myrtle Bothma, 25, who is white, is a stunningly talented 400-meter hurdler who, based on her times (her personal best is 53.74, an all-Africa record) was ranked No. 5 in the world in 1989 and No. 8 last year by Track & Field News. She wins most of her races against her compatriots just as she won the national championship last week—by the outrageous margin of more than a full second. Her closest contact with world-class hurdlers has come when she watched from the stands during the last two Olympics and a couple of other international meets. She said grimly last week, "I have suffered from the sanctions. I could have been in the first three places of the races I saw. I have always believed I was a world-beater. Now, I will prove it in Tokyo. I think it's only fair. It's time the world gave us something back."
Others were more starry-eyed over the new challenges ahead. Tshakile Nzminade, 29, a black employee of a mining company who last season was the world's 10th-fastest performer in the 200-meter dash (personal best: 20.31, also an all-Africa record), said, "I will be so proud to find myself lining up next to people I only hear or read about or see on TV. I think I can do well, but just running on the same track with these people will be like winning the race."
And then there was the South African runner who had not only competed but also starred internationally despite the sanctions, the celebrated Zola Budd, now 24, noticeably plumper than when she was a teenage phenomenon and now joyfully married to a wealthy South African liquor dealer, Michael Pieterse. A two-time world cross-country champion and former world-record holder at 5,000 meters, she is gradually regaining world-class form after retiring for a time to recover from her chaotic outcast years in England, where she lived in order to retain her controversial British citizenship and run against international competition, most notably in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Last week she won the 1,500 and the 3,000 in Pretoria, coasting in far ahead of her competition, though with excruciatingly slow times, 4:08.65 and 9:05.72, respectively. Relaxed and agreeable, she was delighted at the prospects ahead: "Running for a South African Olympic team would be the greatest thrill. Barcelona does seem a real possibility now, but if it doesn't happen, I'll still be around for Atlanta in 1996."
The way things have been happening for South Africa—meaning with extraordinary suddenness—it seems the nation won't have to wait until 1996. The startling thing is that none of this was even remotely likely until 14 months ago. That was when newly elected South African president Frederik Wilhelm de Klerk, a previously unremarkable white politician who had never been known as verligte ("enlightened" in Afrikaans), stood up in parliament and electrified his countrymen—and the world—by declaring that black leader Nelson Mandela, a political prisoner for 27 years, would be released, and that Mandela's outlawed antiapartheid party, the fiercely militant African National Congress, would be legalized again. The next day, Feb. 11, 1990, Mandela was set free.