Nelson Mandela, the revered Nobel Peace prizewinner who after 27 years in prison gained his freedom and became South Africa’s first black president in a newly post-apartheid era in 1994, believed “sport has the power to change the world … It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers." More
Mandela, who died Thursday at 95, had been a long-distance runner and a boxer in his college days. His imprisonment, for conspiring against South Africa’s government, came just shortly after the country was banned from the Olympic Games and other international competitions due to its apartheid system of strict racial separation and discrimination. After Rome in 1960, a South African team wouldn’t be at the Olympics until 1992 in Barcelona.
Mandela, amid civil strife and intense pressure from the populace to end apartheid, was released from prison in 1990, and was markedly more motivated by the urge to reconcile than any desire to seek vengeance. The dismantling of apartheid, which he helped negotiate with the country's president, F.W. de Klerk, meant that South Africa’s Olympic ban was finished. The country’s runners could emerge from shadows and obscurity and become part of global athletics once more.
In Barcelona in 1992, South Africa’s first medal went to went to Elana Meyer, who dueled with Ethiopia’s Derartu Tulu in the women’s 10,000 before settling for a silver. Meyer and Tulu’s victory lap, hand-in-hand, resonated deeply for observers hopeful about racial progress on the African continent. Today, 31 years later, the top of Elana Meyer’s Twitter page features a photo of herself with Mandela.
In 1996 in Atlanta, South Africa’s Josia Thugwane took first in the men’s marathon, becoming the first black South African to earn Olympic gold. Incidentally, South Africa’s greatest previous Olympic running accomplishment had been a one-two finish in the marathon at the 1912 Stockholm Games.
The road racing community had been waiting to welcome South Africa back into the fold, particularly due to the achievements of a Durban banker named Willie Mtolo. This son of a Zulu cattle farmer had run a 2:08:15 marathon in Port Elizabeth in 1986. There were suspicions raised about the validity of the course’s length, but Mtolo was undeniably exceptional. Yet the rest of the world couldn’t learn precisely how exceptional, since he was prohibited from racing almost everywhere but domestically.
New York City Marathon Director Fred Lebow wanted Mtolo for his race, and in 1991 had given him a space in the press truck that leads the elite runners. A year later, Mtolo would become South Africa’s first New York City Marathon champion with a 2:09:29. Hendrick Ramaala (seen above) became the next one in 2004, running one second faster than Mtolo’s time.
In the 21st century, South Africa has rebuilt itself into a “mid-range” power in the track and field. Johan Cronje was a 1500-meter bronze medalist at this summer’s world championships in Moscow, and Caster Semenya has a gold from the women’s 800 in the 2009 championships and a silver from 2011. Plus there’s that “Blade Runner,” Oscar Pistorius.
But while Mandela had languished in prison, South Africa had been in the athletic wilderness for decades. In the 20 years following the imposition of the ban on the nation’s athletes, perhaps the most accomplished and prominent runner affected was Sydney Maree. He attended Villanova and won two NCAA titles in the 1500 and one in the 5000 between 1979 and 1981. His 1500 and mile times were genuinely world-class.
Maree’s plight exemplified the cruelty that can accompany good intentions. Maree is black, and hence was himself a victim of South Africa’s apartheid policies, but the International Olympic Committee made no distinctions in its ban of all South Africans. Maree didn’t make it to the Olympics until 1988 in Seoul, as a United States citizen, and finished fifth in the 5000.
Of course, the long-distance runner most associated with South Africa’s apartheid era was Zola Budd, who set what would have been a world 5000-meter record of 15:01.83 in 1984 when she was just 17. The IAAF refused to recognize the mark because of Budd’s country of origin.
Helped by a tabloid newspaper, Budd was fast-tracked for British citizenship (her grandfather was British) in time for the Los Angeles Olympics, where she had that fateful tangle in a 3000-meter race with American Mary Decker Slaney, an event that remains more renowned than any of the winning achievements mentioned above. Slaney would trip and not finish, and Budd would fade to seventh. As a nominal Brit, her 14:48.07 in 1985 did earn recognition as a 5000-meter world record, and she was the world cross country champion in 1985 and 1986.
Budd and South Africa would come full circle. After Mandela’s release, and the casting of apartheid to the wind, she was representing South Africa in the 3000-meter run in Barcelona, though she did not make the Olympic final. In 1993 came her strongest international showing on an “adult” South African team; Budd was fourth in the world cross country championships. Today she’s 47, living in South Carolina, and racing quite successfully against local competition less than half her age.