POSTED: April 28th 2016

JOHN GOODBODY: The legacy of apartheid lives on but a quota system won't help

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications

(SFC) South Africa has often been a problem for international sport. Although the country competed in the   Olympic Games until 1960, the repugnance over its apartheid regime meant that for 30 years its many prospective medal-winners never had the chance of taking part in the Games and many other major events until the 1990s.

For long periods in the 1960s and 1970s, South Africans made strenuous attempts to return to the Games but the International Olympic Committee was unmoved. Yet the shadow of South Africa continued to hang over the Olympic Movement.

 In 1976, black African countries boycotted the Games because one of the participating countries, New Zealand, had hosted the Springbok team in rugby union, which at the time was not an Olympic sport and over which the New Zealand Olympic Committee had no jurisdiction. 10 years later and also at the last moment, the Commonwealth Games were damaged by a boycott because of the policies of the UK Government.

It was only with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 and the ending of white majority rule that South Africa was welcomed back to international sport. There were memorable symbols. At the Barcelona Games, the winner, Ethiopian Derartu Tulu, the first black African woman to take an Olympic medal, and the runner-up, the white Elana Meyer, the first South African medallist since the ban was lifted, embraced and carrying their national flags ran round the stadium arm-in-arm. In 1995, Mandela, wearing the Springbok colours, congratulated the South African captain, Francois Pienaar, when they won the 1995 home World Cup in rugby union, the sport that had always exemplified the white majority rule.

Memories of that harmony have long gone. This week, the South African Sports Minister, Fikile Mbalula, announced that four sports, rugby union, cricket, netball and athletics, could not bid for international events because of what he saw as the need to correct the imbalance of coloured representation in their national teams.

A year ago, their sporting bodies and also that representing football had signed an agreement committing them greater racial equality in selection.  Leandro Negre, the Spanish President of the International Hockey Federation (FIH), has claimed that no South African team in his sport will be at the Rio Games because hockey is perceived as a white sport.

And Mbalula warned: "If they"(the governing bodies)"are able to correct their errors that will be good for them and then they can self-correct it going forward. If they are not, then punishment may increase. Remember we are not only confined to the hosting and bidding. There are other measures we can take." Although the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Durban are exempt, the bid to stage the 2023 Rugby World Cup now looks much less likely.

About 84 percent of South African citizens under the age of 18 are black Africans and the problems of having a quota system in selection may well get worse in the years to come, especially in sports, in which it may take a long time for those youngsters to take an interest, let alone excel. This is made more difficult because so many of these youngsters are focussing on football, the national game.  

Funding and support should certainly be aimed at encouraging these youngsters to enjoy and develop their talent for these sports. Yet, it is clearly wrong to force coaches and managers to choose one player or competitor over another for representative teams, when the selection is based on an arbitrary quota rather than strictly on merit.

The legacy of apartheid still overshadows South African sport and will continue to do so for many years to come. But its effects will not be alleviated either by the insistence of sticking to any quota system or by influencing any selection for the Games in Rio.

** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2012 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 12th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.  

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