Thursday, 3 September 2009

Pawns of Power

Twice in twenty-one years two young South African women athletes have been caught up in the power politics of world sport. In 1988, Zola Budd a 21 year old white woman from the highveld near Bloemfontein became a pawn in the battle to save the Seoul Olympics from yet another boycott. In 2009 Caster Semenya an 18 year old black woman from Aganang in Limpopo province has been deemed the victim of sexism and racism by no less a man than Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa.

Budd was an extraordinarily talented runner who set records in South Africa that would never be recognised because the country was ostracised from world sport through its apartheid policies. As her grandfather was English the 17 year old was rushed to Britain by her avaricious father Frank, received a passport almost overnight and was thus eligible to compete in the Los Angeles Olympics. Controversy rode her back from that moment.

Whilst in LA she inadvertently tripped-tumbled to the track the American favourite Mary Slaney ensuring that neither of them would win a medal and earning for herself a lasting notoriety. Over the next three years she won two world cross-country championships and set British and Commonwealth records. But most of the time she was homesick, spending more and more time in Bloemfontein finally catching the eye of Sam Ramsamy, the powerful head of SANROC (South African Non Racial Olympic Committee). The frail, diminutive runner, it seemed to him, was a God given gift as the epitome of apartheid.

The 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh had been boycotted because of renegade rugby and other sport’s tours to South Africa. New Zealand was fearful that its 1990 Games in Auckland would suffer the same fate; it was also due to stage the World cross-country championships in 1988 where Budd was due to run. Horse-trading took place between the country and SANROC. The deal was that if the Kiwis kept Budd out of the championships SANROC would ensure there would be no boycott of the Commonwealth Games. The campaign was successful; Budd was harassed on cross-country courses in England; Scandinavian and African countries wrote to the IAAF asking for an investigation. The story was world-wide news; the pressures on Budd were enormous. The British Amateur Athletic Board (BAAB) reluctantly withdrew her from the team as much for her sake as anyone else’s.

The President of the IAAF, Primo Nebiolo had assured the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, Juan Antonio Samaranch that Budd would not be in Seoul thus preventing yet another boycott. In March, 1988 the IAAF suspended Budd until its next Council meeting, ironically to be held in London, alleging that she had “taken part” in meetings in South Africa.

The IAAF Council and the world’s media descended on the Park Lane Hotel in April. It was a weekend of obduracy on all sides. Press conference followed press conference. The BAAB, to its everlasting credit, refused to condemn Budd until evidence was produced that showed that she had participated in meetings in South Africa. That evidence was never forthcoming. All she had done was follow a road race on a bicycle and then at a track meeting been introduced to the crowd. The IAAF construed this as “taking part”; the BAAB did not.

Sensing blood after the New Zealand affair the big guns of African sport joined in, including Lamine Diack from Senegal, IAAF Council member and President of the African Athletics Confederation (CAA) who led the attack on Budd and the BAAB. This is the same Lamine Diack, now President of the IAAF, whose organisation has been accused of racism in the matter of Semenya.

The IAAF instructed Britain to conveniently ban Budd for twelve months. Failure to do so would lead to the country being banned from the Olympics. The BAAB demurred and decided to hold its own investigation. Zola’s formidable Afrikaner mother Tossie flew in, saw the state of her daughter and sent her back to South Africa. The saga and the investigation were over.

There is no doubt in my mind that if the BAAB inquiry had followed its course the conclusion would have been that Budd did not compete in South Africa and a massive confrontation with the IAAF and IOC would have taken place. Budd’s return to South Africa halted that. This had been power politics at its worst and did the IAAF little credit.

South Africa re-entered the sporting fold with the release of Nelson Mandela and the return of democracy. Budd represented her country at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
On the surface there is little similarity between the cases of Budd and Semenya but dig deeper and they soon appear. Declaring just hours before her running in the 800 final in Berlin that gender tests were to be carried out on Semenya was an act of insensitivity for which the IAAF has been roundly condemned. The last thing that SANROC, CAA, IAAF considered in their eagerness to outdo the others in the Budd case was the athlete herself, taken at age 17 from a cloistered environment in Bloemfontein and cast on to the world stage in a matter of weeks. In both instances a duty of care was absent.

The disingenuousness of Athletics South Africa knows no bounds; its president Leonard Chuene comes out of the Semenya affair with little credit. It studiously ignored the extraordinary improvement of over 16 seconds in 13 months by the young woman; it never asked the question ‘why?’ Clearly without forethought Chuene immediately accused one of the world great multi-ethnic organisations and its black president of racism, an accusation that is so crass as to deserve the derision heaped upon it. Nonetheless such nonsense hasn’t stopped prominent politicians like Jacob Zuma and Winnie Mandela getting in on the act. Inexorably it seems both the IAAF and South Africa are backing themselves into corners from which it will be difficult to extricate themselves without losing face.

In 1986 Diack refused to present Zola Budd with the gold medal at the world cross-country championships; 20 years later at an IAAF Golden Gala he invited her to be his special guest, calling her ‘one of the athletics family’. Budd, now living in South Carolina on a two year work visa so that she can run (successfully) in the American Masters Classics road running series, was stunned. I wonder what she, now 43, thinks as she views the Semenya case.

The media frenzy that followed Zola for four years in the eighties is long gone; for Caster, I suspect, it is just beginning. What is clearly needed is not wild speculation and even wilder headlines but compassion for the young woman from Limpopo.

Honouring Arthur

It’s good to know that moves are afoot to celebrate the life of Arthur Wharton, the world’s first black professional footballer, by erecting a statue to him in the town of Darlington where he arrived in the 1880’s from what is now Ghana. As a goalkeeper he played not only for Darlington but for Preston, Rotherham and Sheffield United. Perhaps athletics should follow suit in view of his achievements.

Wharton was also a great sprinter, I guess the Usain Bolt of his time. In the AAA Championships of 1886, running on cinders at the old Stamford Bridge track in London he set a world best time for 100 yards of 10 seconds, the celebrated ‘even time’. It was later ratified by the AAA for record purposes.

Wharton was a great all-rounder (he represented Darlington Cricket Club at the AAA’s) who after his triumph joined the famous Birchfield Harriers based in Birmingham. He won the AAA’s title again at Stourbridge Cricket Club the following year and then became a successful professional ‘pedestrian’. In 1889 Arthur turned full-time professional footballer. His running days were over for, as Peter Matthews drily points out in The Guinness Book of Athletics Facts & Feats (1982) his goalkeeping “presumably giving him little chance to exploit his speed.”

After his sporting career Arthur Wharton worked for 15 years as a colliery haulage hand in Yorkshire. He died in 1930 after ‘a long and painful illness’ (presumably emphysema) and was buried in an unmarked grave in the pit village of Edlington, a forgotten star. In the late 20th century a football fund raised the money for a headstone which has been in place since 1997. If you want more details go to

Who is we?

I frequently go to the UK Athletics website in the vain hope of gleaning information about what is going on in that organisation. For far too many weeks now I’ve been greeted by a large photo of Olympic champion Christine Ohuruogu standing somewhat sheepishly in front of a blackboard, chalk in hand, on which is written 3½ times, We must get kids more active. Presumably she has been given one hundred lines for not doing so. What I really want to know before the photo is thankfully removed is: who is the 'we'?


Anonymous said...

No wonder that IAAF made major mistakes in the Zola Budd case: IAAF President was Primo Nebiolo, one of the greatest idiots and rascals ever born in the world.

It would be useful to read what I wrote of him in my magazine "Voices of Africa" at the beginning of the 80s. Obviously, I knew him personally.


Dr Frank M Messina

jagath said...

Really interesting ... Thanks for sharing

John said...

Nebiolo may have been a "rascal" but he was certainly no "idiot"

He transformed the IAAF from a bland "old boys amateur club" into a highly proessional global brand and made it very rich (he was already a very rich industrialist, himself)

Because of his "dictatorship" money flowed into the sport and eventually after much effort by the Association of Athletes Representatives (of which I was an elected Executive Director) prize monies also flowed into all IAAF events and the sham of amateurism at the elite level was finally consigned to history.

Nebiolo may have been many things to many people but without his vision,sheer personality and power the sport would have been nothing like it is today.

Anonymous said...

No wonder you had this story at your fingertips.

(Commonwealth Diiner keswick)


Anonymous said...

Again, awesome web site.

My webpage ::

south africa news online said...

I was found of Olympic racing and I always wanted to see South Africa as a wining country but my dream has not yet come to realty.