Next week, even as South Africans suffer through the chill winter of the Southern Hemisphere, their elite athletes will be coming in from the cold. Most of those who will travel to steamy Barcelona to compete against the world's best were bom and raised in sports isolation in the more than three decades since the country’s all-white squad performed in the 1960 Rome Olympics. “It’s an extraordinary feeling,” declares Sam Ramsamy, chairman of the country’s Olympic committee. “It isn’t really South Africa’s re-entry to the Olympics—it’s much more like its entry to the Games, because up to 1960 the South African squad really only represented white South Africa.”
In fact, the majority of the 97 South African athletes in Barcelona will be white—a reflection of historical imbalances that accorded few training opportunities to competitors of other races. But the International Olympic Committee has admitted athletes only from sports that underwent a process of racial integration in time to qualify. International competition—beginning with the African Unity Games in Senegal last April—has already benefited some racers. Bobang Phiri, a 24-year-old 400-m sprinter, is “running faster every time he faces better competition,” says his manager, Tony Longhurst. Bom in Mohlakeng Township, 40 km west of Johannesburg, Phiri was one of five children and two grandchildren raised in the same cramped home. And like most of his black compatriots, he had few of the advantages available to white youths. “In every township there’s a lack of facilities, and it was the same where I grew up,” he says. “But I’m proud of getting onto the team. I don’t feel like focusing on the issue of race. I'm a runner and that’s all that I’m thinking about.”
The country’s brightest medal hopeful is 25-year-old 10,000-m runner Elana Meyer. An Afrikaner, Meyer was bom in the tiny rural town of Albertinia, 300 km east of Cape Town. “I didn’t really have all the opportunities of bigger races and better competition,” she says. “But we had a grass track to train on and my parents could buy me some shoes to run in. So I was very lucky.”
Last December, Meyer ran the 10,000 m in 31:33, breaking the South African record set by Zola Pieterse (née Budd)—who ran for Britain at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, but will be competing for South Africa in Barcelona. “For most of my career,” says Meyer, “the Olympics were beyond my reach because of the isolation and because I was not fast enough. Now, I am peaking at just the right time. And it makes it even more exciting that we are representing a united South Africa at the Olympics.”
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