African arts, culture + politics

Flashback: July 25 1992 South Africa returns to the Olympics


(ARISE magazine, issue 13) Draped in flags, two exhausted but exultant women – one white, one black – embrace each other and raise their joined hands aloft. Out of context it’s an uplifting picture of racial and sporting unity, but to spectators at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona it was an affirmation that the long, bitter fight against apartheid was over.

The shot was taken moments after Ethiopian runner Derartu Tulu won the 10,000-metre women’s race, becoming the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold. Yet instead of revelling in her own glory Tulu waited for her South African challenger, Elana Meyer, to cross the finish line in second place. The pair embraced then embarked on an emotive joint lap of victory around the stadium, hand in hand. “The scale of the response was unexpected, overwhelming,” Meyer later remembered in an interview with Running Times. ”People, white and black, still stop me to this day to tell me where they were when that race was run.”

Before its long-awaited return, South Africa had not competed in the Olympics since 1960. Its application for the 1964 Games in Tokyo was turned down after it submitted a white-only team roster and refused to amend it. Later a swathe of African nations ensured their neighbour’s absence with a threatened boycott in 1968 and with a real one in 1976, involving some 22 African countries. Finally in 1970 the International Olympics Committee (IOC) banned South Africa from competing – the first major international body to impose a sanction on the nation.
The Olympics wasn’t the only arena in which South Africa was shunned. International rugby, cricket and football contests were also made off limits – hitting sports-mad South Africans as hard as the economic, trade and music sanctions already in place. Some complained sport was being unfairly politicised. Yet South Africa had arguably already done this with its discriminatory sporting regulations. Black and white athletes were forbidden from competing together, for instance, and resources for black athletes were scarce.

South Africa’s return to the Olympics was the result of slow political wrangling. In 1988 the IOC set up the Apartheid and Olympic Commission and in 1990, following Nelson Mandela’s release from jail, sent a delegation to meet with Mandela, Oliver Tambo and other members of the African National Congress (ANC). Having initially pushed for South Africa to be banned from the Olympics, the ANC now saw the potential for change its readmittance offered.

And change did come. On June 17 President de Klerk began repealing the core laws of apartheid, starting with the Population Regulation Act, which classified South Africans by race. On July 9 the IOC elected to allow South Africa to return to the Olympics. But it laid out a number of conditions; including the abolishment of all remaining instruments of apartheid, an end to segregated sporting competitions and better sporting facilities for all.

The road back to Olympic competition was not smooth. The unveiling of a new team anthem and an alternative flag – a replacement to the orange, white and blue standard, which was felt to be too associated with the minority white administration – ruffled the feathers of many white South Africans. Sports minister Louis Pienaar called it,
“a slap in the face of South Africans”. Others had more practical concerns. After years away from the starting line, would South Africa’s athletes be up to the job?

Despite rumbles of discontent and concern, on July 25 1992 the world watched South Africa’s hopefuls join Barcelona’s glitzy opening ceremony. Of the 95-strong team, only eight were black – even though black South Africans constituted 81 per cent of the population. Mandela, who led the team, commented: “I would have liked it to be a reflection of our population, but there has to be a starting point. Let bygones be bygones. Let’s concern ourselves with our presence here”.

Although the ghost of apartheid haunted South Africa long after 1992, the Games inspired change and unity across the country – and Africa. Tulu’s victory helped advance women’s rights in Ethiopia, while Meyer went on to run the JAG Foundation organising sports programmes for disadvantaged children. “Running transformed my life,” she said. “My dream is to give the same opportunities to young kids in South Africa. I really believe in the power of sport.”


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