The International Aquatic Sports Boycott : 1961 - 1991

The reasons and justiciations for the exclusion of South African competitors from international competition for 30 years has been document elsewhere, although there is little if any research on the effect it had on the competitors.

Click here to find a number of sports boycott-related references.

The campaign for global vilification and boycotting of South African sportsmen was a theatre of operations in the war for political dominance in South Africa - where an early victory was the expulsion of the SA Table Tennis Federation from its world governing body in 1956. For swimmers of the boycott era it is a subject particularly poignant interest - the man awarded the leadership position of the new national governing body in 1991 was non other than Sam Ramsammy - the principal strategist of the struggle against apartheid sports from the mid-1970s.

Much has been written about the international campaign to exclude South African competitors from international competition, and the accepted view is that the boycott helped to bring down the white minority government. Little attention has been paid to the effects of the boycott on sportsmen. There are many reasons for the lack of interest about the effects of the boycott on the sportsmen. 

One reason is probably because they were never the intended targets of the campaign - which was always about political control of South Africa. The sports boycott was (and still is) a convenient weapon in the ANC's war - and the sportsmen (of all colours) were acceptable collateral damage. Of course the South African government also used propaganda as a weapon in this war and both sides were guilty of murdering innocent bystanders. If teenage swimmers had any views about the international  sports boycott at all, most (white Afrikaners like me) accepted it is a necessary sacrifice in the war against ANC terrorism - just like many American victims of their 1980 Olympic boycott accepted it as a valid action against the Soviet Union. Besides - anyone good enough could get a scholarship in the USA and compete in the NCAa - the world's toughest swimming environment.

For the (white) kids who lived in South Africa, the boycott was a reality mostly accepted and ignored. Nationals still took place every year - SA records were broken, and Springbok colours remained the most revered status one could aspire to. Even for Karen Muir - holder of a world record at the 1966 nationals - winning a South African title for the first time, in front of her peers, was a special moment. SAASU's attempts integrate black, white and coloured swimmers resulted in the participation of some coloured swimmers at nationals, where they did not do well. For swimmers who had to achieve qualifying times to swim at nationals, it probably rankled that some people got a free entry to compete - and that was probably also the extent of their interest in the exercise. The South African Championships was a big deal for the competitors, all of whom had worked long and hard to get there. Performance - winning - was the only criteria - and the handing of gold medals to swimmers beaten by Rhodesians was also viewed as demeaning by many competitors. It would be 25 years before a non-white swimmer wins a national title - as Raazik Nordien did in the SA Short Course Championships - held in the Long Street baths in 2000.

Sport and Politics is a broad topic which ideally requires its own research project - beyond the scope of this publication. This website aims to provide a historical overview of all the aquatic and related sports in southern Africa - without an undue focus on the political elements. As such the topic is included largely for reference purposes.

However - no history of South Africa can be complete without some reference to the effects of political interference on the actors in that history. The targets of the swimming boycott were largely teenagers - they were soft targets deemed as acceptable collateral damage in the wider conflict over political dominance in southern Africa.

The history of aquatic sports is part of the larger field of sports history, and the international political campaign against South Africans sports is a part of this subject. The emphasis on politics, such racial quotas in team selection, is still very much a feature of all South African sports today - and continues to blight the lives of many people involved in the sports.

The problem is particularly acute in water polo where Swimming South Africa insists on "representative" quota team selection - in 2007 the Western Province water polo team was barred from competing in the final at the interprovincial championships due to the fact that they did not meet quota requirements.

Swimming South Africa policy states: All senior team disciplines (water-polo and synchronised swimming) will be compelled to have a 20% black participation by 2008, and junior teams a 50% black participation, or else such teams will not be ratified.

The wikipedia entry under "Sports and politics" states as follows:

Most famously, the sporting boycott of South Africa during Apartheid was said to have played a crucial role in forcing South Africa to open up their society and to end a global isolation. South Africa was excluded from the 1964 Summer Olympics, and many sports' governing bodies expelled or suspended membership of South African affiliates. It was said that the "international boycott of apartheid sport has been a powerful means for sensitising world opinion against apartheid and in mobilising millions of people for action against that despicable system." This boycott "in some cases helped change official policies."

This is a common justification for the boycott, even if many South Africans would disagree. The 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics was similarly justified, although few people would argue it had any effect on the Soviet regime. Marlene Goldsmith states that the South African boycott was due to human rights violations - despite the ANC's calculated use of the boycott as way of achieving political dominance in the country. Some writes (pro-boycott) state that "Under apartheid, especially after the mid-80s, white South Africans felt isolated and knew in their hearts that apartheid was responsible". This patronizing view of (white) South Africans merely reinforces the justification for the boycott, and ignores the realities now evident in South Africa, where crime, corruption and general incompetence has driven many (white) South Africans to emigrate.

These seems to be little interest in recording the views of the victims of the sports boycott in South Africa] - they were acceptable collateral damage. As the battle for political dominance in South Africa continues unabated, the sportsmen remain soft targets for ANC politicians, who now justify their actions by claiming there has not been enough "transformation" - and want 60% of all teams to be black.

For some South African athletes, like professional golfer Gary Player and Formula One world champion Jody Schecter, the boycott probably had little impact - and even the rugby players continued to enjoy international competition almost throughout the boycott years.

But for the hottest prospects of Olympic gold - swimmers like teenagers Karen Muir and Ann Fairlie, Jonty Skinner and Peter Williams - the boycott meant everything, as they were denied every chance to compere internationally. Although the carrot of Olympic participation was cruelly dangled in 1968 - a Springbok team was selected for Mexico City - but the IOC bowed to international pressure at the last moment and withdrew the invitation previously extended to the South Africans.

This website is dedicated in part to the history of South Africans competitors who were excluded from international competition. Many of the the swimmers the solution was to win a scholarships at an American university - click here to see the list of Exiles.

It is perhaps no accident that the majority of these "local heores come from the boycott era. In the past South African champions had been allowed to travel overseas as Springboks and compete in the Olympic  and Commonwealth Games, while the post-isolation are has seen the swimmers like Penny Heyns and Chad le Clos , who demonstrate the true talent of South African swimming.

Many of these swimmers never returned, and often left a void at the South African championships when they failed to defend their titles. Some returned - like Gerhard van der Walt and Craig Jackson - to win multiple titles at the South African nationals. Other, like Jonty Skinner, Annette Cowley and Gary Brinkman tried to compete for other countries by becoming citizens - but to no avail. Some did succeed - like Rhodesian David Lowe and Simon Gray, who swam for Britian at the Moscow Olympic Games - where Lowe won a bronze medal.

For most of the South African swimmers the boycott had little meaning - Olympic qualifiers are always few in number. Throughout the first decade of the boycott Karen Muir kept South African swimming in international swimming. Olympic medallists Kathy Ferguson and Elaine Tanner had to come to Durban - to test themselves against the world record holder in their event - only to be beaten. In the 1960's other countries also sent their swimmers and water polo teams - Japan, the Netherlands, and Germany amongst them. Some - like Dutch world record holder even came to stay (for a while), while there were visits from famous coaches like Doc Councilman and Derek Snelling of Canada.

The boycott history is well documented - how the ANC inspired the IOC and every international governing body - including FINA - voted to exclude South African competitors, while still allowing men like SAASU president Harry Getz to be the Chief Judge at both the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games.The propaganda value of sport is analysed in Olympic Sports and Propaganda Games: Moscow 1980 by Baruch Hazan, and also the 1971 ANC publication International Boycott of Apartheid Sport.

While the history of South Africa is currently being re-written or simply ignored - as can be seen from the Swimming South Africa website no mention has ever been made of the these unfortunate kids who missed out.

The 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics similarly resulted in a large number of Olympic athletes being excluded form the event - albeit for entirely different reasons. The USA, Canada, Germany, Japan - and 62 other countries chose to punish the Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan - by depriving their own athletes the opportunity to compete in thew Moscow Games.

Australian sports historian Douglas Booth summed up the sports boycott:

In the political struggle against apartheid, protesters and opponents of the South African regime adopted a range of strategies and tactics, including a boycott of sport. This article analyses and evaluates the effectiveness and significance of the sports boycott that passed through various stages with respect to objectives and goals. Boycotters initially sought to deracialize South African sport. By the early 1980s, the sports boycott was one of a raft of resistance strategies aimed at forcing the South African regime to abandon apartheid; by the end of that decade, supporters advocated the boycott as a strategy to build non-racial democratic sporting structures that would assist the transition to a post-apartheid society. While proponents insist that the boycott contributed directly to the abandonment of apartheid, this article suggests that the contribution was more indirect, that the deracialization of sport in the mid-1970s (under the impetus of the boycott) may have had a greater impact on the discarding of racial ideology in South Africa than commentators have thus far admitted.


Sporting boycott of South Africa during the Apartheid era

 The 1934 British Empire Games, originally awarded in 1930 to Johannesburg, was moved to London after the (pre-apartheid) South Africa government refused to allow nonwhite participants. South Africa continued to participate in every Games until it left the Commonwealth in 1961.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) withdrew its invitation to South Africa to the 1964 Summer Olympics when interior minister Jan de Klerk insisted the team would not be racially integrated. In 1968, the IOC was prepared to readmit South Africa after assurances that its team would be multi-racial; but a threatened boycott by African nations and others forestalled this. The South African Games of 1969 and 1973 were intended to allow Olympic-level competition for South Africans against foreign athletes. South Africa was formally expelled from the IOC in 1970.

In 1976, African nations demanded that New Zealand be suspended by the IOC for continued contacts with South Africa, including a tour by the New Zealand national rugby union team. When the IOC refused, the African teams withdrew from the games.  This contributed to the Gleneagles Agreement being adopted by the Commonwealth in 1977.

The IOC adopted a declaration against "apartheid in sport" on 21 June 1988, for the total isolation of apartheid sport.

In 1980, the United Nations began compiling a "Register of Sports Contacts with South Africa". This was a list of sportspeople and official who had participated in events within South Africa. It was compiled mainly from reports in South African newspapers. Being listed did not itself result in any punishment, but was regarded as a moral pressure on athletes. Some sports bodies would discipline athletes based on the register. Athletes could have their names deleted from the register by giving a written undertaking not to return to apartheid South Africa to compete. The register is regarded as having been an effective instrument.

The UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention against Apartheid in Sports on 10 December 1985.

The names of more than 600 American athletes and sports officials are on a list of 2,500 people who participated in sports events in South Africa from September 1980 through December 1987.

The annual United Nations Register of Sports Contacts with South Africa, issued yesterday by the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid, is part of a United Nations campaign to end international sports contacts with South Africa until that country's system of racial separation is abolished.

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