Sports Revival

From AP Archives





Associated Press Writer

Nov. 1, 1997 3:00 AM ET

MUNSIVILLE, South Africa (AP) _ Lawrence Mowgnay jukes, jostles and pivots through a knot of scrappy boys, refusing to yield control of a scuffed and stained soccer ball.

The 12-year-old dances the ball into the clear and fires a kick into the goal, then pumps his arms to celebrate.

“I am Doctor Khumalo! I am the World Cup hero,” he yells, imagining a scene he hopes national soccer idol Khumalo will create next year when South Africa plays in the World Cup finals in France.

The boy also pictures himself a World Cup star, far from this field overlooking a sprawl of one-room shacks about 25 miles from Johannesburg.

“I will play for South Africa and we will win,” he insists.

To be young and athletic in South Africa today is to be filled with newfound hope over opportunities that didn’t exist a few years ago, when the world shunned the pariah nation for its brutal oppression.

Banned for more than 20 years from most international contests until apartheid began crumbling in the early 1990s, South Africans now are completing a sports resurrection. They are storming into the upper echelons of competition ranging from swimming to soccer, delighting a sports-crazed nation and inspiring the once impossible dream of being recognized as the world’s best.

Hurdler Llewellyn Herbert says losing a generation to international sanctions intensified the will to win, driving athletes to make the most of recent exposure to top-level competition.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t even know about the Olympics,” the 20-year-old Herbert said. “Now I want to be the best in the world and I want to win. I think I can do both.”

He backed up that brashness in Athens last August. Herbert entered the World Championships as an unheralded hopeful in the men’s 400-meter hurdles. He left as a silver medalist.

From marathons to cricket pitches, from manicured golf courses to the public brawls of rugby matches, South Africans are exerting influence in sports that highlight the nation’s diversity.

Take Olympic gold medalists Josia Thugwane and Penny Heyns.

Heyns, who left home to train in the United States and compete for the University of Nebraska, won South Africa’s first post-apartheid Olympic golds in the women’s 100- and 200-meter breaststroke events last year in Atlanta.

Days later, marathoner Thugwane became the country’s first black Olympic champion, changing his life forever.

The once illiterate mine worker had to move his family for fear of jealous criminals after his prize money. Now Thugwane has lucrative endorsements, is learning to read and encourages poor children to keep running, even if they can’t afford shoes.

The list of South African triumphs keeps growing.

Golfer Ernie Els this year won his second U.S. Open in the last four years. He then teamed with Retief Goosen and David Frost in October to win South Africa’s first Dunhill Cup title.

In women’s tennis, fourth-ranked Amanda Coetzer has emerged as a giant-killer, beating Steffi Graf three times and handing top-ranked Martina Hingis only her third loss this year.

Marius Corbett won the country’s first world track and field title, surprising the men’s javelin field in Athens with an African record throw of 290 feet.

Then there was the national soccer squad’s victory over the Republic of Congo in mid-August to secure the nation’s first World Cup final berth. Fans danced in the streets and parties raged through the night celebrating success in the most popular sport among the black majority.

That win capped a revival of team sports. In 1995, South Africa played host to the World Cup rugby tournament and won the championship. The cricket team made it to the World Cup semifinals in 1992 and the quarterfinals last year.

While such successes inspire black kids like Mowgnay, many find themselves still disadvantaged compared with whites.

From very young ages, white athletes train in better facilities under more experienced coaches. The National Olympic Committee tries to help, but lacks the resources to develop all deserving athletes from impoverished areas.

“Sadly, there’s quite a lot of rhetoric, but not enough is being done,” said Sam Ramsamy, Olympic Committee president.

Hezekiel Sepeng, silver medalist in the men’s 800-meter race at Atlanta, is one of the success stories _ a man from a poor background who got help and turned into a world-class runner.

“But for every Hezekiel Sepeng we discover, there are 10 more just like him who never get a chance,” Ramsamy said.

Ragel van Wyk, a 15-year-old who dreams of running in the Olympics, fights the odds.

Her mother deserted her when she was a small girl. She has no spiked shoes for competition; no track where she can train. She lives in a dormitory with no television, so she knows little about major sports events. But she has lots of promise, winning the national cross-country championships and 1,200-meter race for her age group in 1995.

Her coach, Edgar Prince, a teacher at her school, worries her talent will be wasted. She missed the premier cross-country and track competitions this year because she couldn’t afford to travel.

“Every time there is a big event, we wonder where we will get the money,” Prince said.

Athletes and sports officials say that beyond the victories and titles, sports promote racial harmony in South Africa’s deeply divided society.

Van Wyk, the poor black girl, wants to grow up to be like Elana Meyer, a white South African who won a silver medal in the women’s 10,000 meters at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

And Herbert, the white hurdler who aims to be the world champion, idolizes Edwin Moses, the black American who dominated the 400-meter event from 1976-87.

“When I came back to South Africa after the Olympics, I was surprised to find that everyone _ black and white _ was happy for me and celebrating the victories,” said Heyns, the double gold medalist in Atlanta. “It makes me want to do it again.”



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