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The years before isolation

The 16th Modern Olympic Games, Melbourne, Australia

In 1956 a modern Olympic Games was for the first time hosted in the Southern Hemisphere. It was also for the first time obvious that the Olympic Games would in the future be used by countries to promote their political agendas.

The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland boycotted the Games in protest against Russia’s brutal suppression of a potential rebellion in Hungary. Iraq, Egypt and Iran pulled out because of the so-called Suez crises.

The president of the IOC, the American Average Brundage, tried to stop the political tied. “We are dead against any country using the Games for political purposes, whether right or wrong. The Olympics are competitions between individuals and not nations,” he declared rather naively.

In Africa a “wind of change” was starting to blow. Africa wanted the European colonial powers to leave the continent. “Uhuru” (freedom) was the shout echoing over the continent. This “wind” was about to develop into a storm.

For the South African athletes the Games was a major disaster. A country use to bring back Gold Medals from an Olympic Games, this time won four bronze medals.

The track and field manager and coach, Mr S P Barkhuizen, claimed in his report at the end of the Games that a total lack of discipline and dedication on the part of the athletes resulted in their failure in competition.

The 17th Olympic Games, Rome, Italy

Over the years South Africa developed a tradition to select their sport teams from the white minority of the population only. Up to this stage there were no laws demanding this. It was just the way it was done.

Sport was “the white man’s domain”.

Among white South Africans there were first disbelieve and then anger that the international world would not accept this situation.

At the 55th IOC meeting in Munich in 1959 questions were for the fist time officially asked about the South African National Olympic Committee’s ability to send a team to an Olympic Games select on merit only. A motion was tabled to expel South Africa from the Olympic movement.

The Johannesburg lawyer and member of the IOC, Reg Honey, assured members that the South African Government would issue a passport to any South African selected to represent the country at an Olympic Games.

The traditional “white only” South African Olympic teams became an embarrassment to the country’s friends in the international world.

On the world scene a “Cold War” was fast developing between the West with the USA as its leader and the East with Russia (the USSR) as its leader. South Africa aliened it behind the leaders of the Western World.

There was never any doubt, outside South Africa, that a practise of racial discrimination in sport was not justifiable and immoral. The Western World, though, hesitated to turn its back on South Africa.

South Africa was looked upon as the country to defend the sea route around the tip of Africa. The country also produced minerals valuable to Western economy and defence systems.

The original reaction from the Western World when South Africa’s racial policies were put on the international agenda by Russia was to defend South Africa as “it was a sovereign country and while its racial policies were immoral, it remained an internal affair”.

Against this background 57 white South Africans were selected to represent the country at the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960. If the 1956 team were accused for a lack of “discipline and dedication” this team went on better.

Less than a fortnight before the opening of the Games a group of South African athletes went partying into the early hours of the morning. On the way back to their hotel the car in which they were driving was involved in an accident. One of South Africa’s medal hopes, Gert Potgieter, the captain of the athletics team, was injured in this accident. When the Games opened he was still in hospital.

The manager of the South African athletes was immediately dismissed. But it was all a case of too little too late. The South African team performed dismally and only brought home two bronze medals.