If economic life were a 100m sprint, then pre-94, only white South Africans were allowed to compete. When the race was suddenly opened to racial all-comers, white South Africans still enjoyed a huge advantage, having had the opportunity to prepare for competition long before the event had been opened up to all, and already being ‘racing fit’.
In any country, never mind one with a history of deep and deliberate racial division, this was going to be a problem, and a problem that needed addressing.
Initially, South Africa started by encouraging all athletes to train hard, and to train together. They referred to this as ‘all boats must rise’. This was a very successful policy and, when it competed in its first economic Olympics against other countries, South Africa faired rather well, in fact very well indeed. But white athletes still generally outperformed their black counterparts, primarily because their historical advantage had not yet had enough time to be negated. Equally significantly though, black athletes were not yet being trained as well as white ones.
In response, South Africa decided on two new policies. Firstly, it moved the starting line back 10m for white athletes, so that they must now run the 110m. They called this policy B.E.E. Secondly, it said that only so many white athletes could take part in the race. This policy they called ‘Employment equity/affirmative action’.
These policies may have been successful, had they simultaneously encouraged black athletes to train hard in order to meet the previous qualifying criteria, and upgraded their training facilities so that they were of an equal standard to the white athletes, but they didn’t.
When the athletes raced domestically, the white athletes still won, even though they were now starting 10m further back. There were many reasons for this. Perhaps a 10m head start was not enough to negate the previous advantage? Perhaps, knowing that they had a 10m advantage the white athletes had to train harder. Without doubt, the poorer training facilities still provided to black athletes played a significant role.
There was much debate on the subject, but, when South Africa next competed in the economic Olympics, it didn’t do so well. It’s best performing athletes, who were still white, were not only at a disadvantage to other South African athletes, but they were now also at a disadvantage against all the other countries too.
It was at this stage that South Africa needed to grasp that training its black athletes better, rather than handicapping its white athletes, was what would allow them to compete successfully at the economic Olympics.
Sadly, South Africa chose to keep on moving the starting line for white athletes further back instead, whilst lowering the qualifying time for black athletes, to ensure that more and more of them could take part. Training facilities for black athletes remained terrible, and, if anything became even more neglected.
Some progress appeared to have been made, when more and more black athletes began to win races, with white athletes now starting 30m back. Some white athletes still managed to negate their handicap and perform, some painted themselves black to allow them to start on the 100m mark (they called this fronting), others just gave up and went to play for other teams.
When the next Olympics came around, South Africa did disastrously. The white athletes were now so handicapped that they couldn’t possibly be competitive, whilst the black athletes were so badly trained that neither could they.
What to do next is presently under discussion. Some South Africans are calling for white athletes to have their running shoes taken away from them, others are calling for them to be made to start even further back.
One group of radicals has started calling for all handicaps to be removed, to allow all athletes to start from the same line again, and instead for serious investment to be made in the training facilities of black athletes, so that they can finally compete as equals.
Mercifully, almost everyone agrees this is a truly stupid idea, and that we must stick instead to the policies that have never worked.
I can’t wait for the next Olympics.
But what about coloured and Indian athletes, you may ask? Who?
Author: Jesse Owens is a pseudonym for everyone who believes that race must play no part in sport, that all of us have greatness within us, and that the colour of our skin can never define us. Let everyone run their own race, and God speed to them