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Scott Ostler

There's a Price Paid for 'Guilt Premium' Offered by South Africa

December 07, 1987|Scott Ostler

How about that Ian Woosnam, folks?

The plucky little Welsh golfer took the big enchilada Sunday. He cashed the only check in the winner-take-all Million Dollar Challenge in Sun City, South Africa.

A big day for the little guy, and another bad day for a lot of black people.

"Everyone dreams of being a millionaire," Woosnam said, hefting his check. "If the tax man is not harsh on me, I might have done it."

Hold it, Ian. Everyone dreams of being a millionaire?

I dream of being a millionaire, certainly. After taxes, I'd settle for being a thousandaire. But in some parts of the world, especially in South Africa, people don't have time to dream that dream.

Instead, the black people there are busy dreaming of being able to vote and being able to get out of prison before they reach puberty.

South Africa has this thing called apartheid, which is defined in Webster's as, "An official policy of racial segregation in the Republic of South Africa."

The policy works fine until someone objects, then it gets sticky. Something like 25,000 anti-apartheid people are in jail right now in South Africa. Several thousands of them, by some estimates, are not yet teen-agers. All of them are dreamers. None of them are millionaires.

But what's this got to do with sports? And why pick on Ian Woosnam, who never threw anybody in jail?

Sports is the toy department, right? An island of fun in a sea of life's troubles, an escape for the world-weary. Why ruin a perfectly good diversion such as sports by turning it into a political tool?

To answer the last question first: Sports is already a political tool in South Africa. Guys such as Ian Woosnam, by playing sports there, are hammering away, shoring up apartheid against the storm of outside opinion. They are as political as a presidential candidate.

Since South Africa is the only nation in the world where apartheid is an official policy, the United Nations slapped a cultural moratorium on the country in 1980. Entertainers and athletes are asked not to sing, box, golf, run or play ball there. To do so, the reasoning goes, lends validity to a system the rest of the world views as wrong. It helps keep the system going.

To counteract this boycott, South Africa has gone to the jugular. Or the wallet. Same difference. They dangle huge sums of money to big-name athletes.

"The prices are higher in South Africa, per performance, than any place in the world," says Arthur Ashe, former Wimbledon champion and current co-chairman (with Harry Belafonte) of Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid. "We call it a 'guilt premium.' Anyone foolish or brave enough to go can negotiate a guilt premium, over and above the standard market value."

So the boycott actually drives up the bounty for the few who choose to ignore it.

Other than resulting in bonanza paydays for the Ian Woosnams of the world, is the boycott effective?

"Cultural isolation is one of the most powerful non-violent weapons that we have," Ashe says. "It's political, economic, spiritual and moral persuasion."

It's serious stuff.

"This conversation is probably being taped," Ashe told me when I phoned him. "I know this phone (in his office) is bugged. The CIA and BOSS (South Africa's Bureau of State Security, now known as Dept. of National Security) share intelligence secrets. . . . When I'm talking to them (anti-apartheid people in Africa), if I'm talking about something they can't read (in the newspapers, because of news censorship), the phone suddenly will be cut off."

The boycott has been generally successful. Hundreds of American artists and athletes have signed pledges that, as Bruce Springsteen and dozens of other stars sang proudly, "I-I-I-I ain't gonna play Sun City."

However . . .

Some athletes, notably from the worlds of tennis and golf, ignore the boycott.

Tennis star Brad Gilbert has played in South Africa twice in the last three years. Mike Weaver boxed there a couple weeks ago. And in the Million Dollar Challenge, American golfers Lanny Wadkins and Curtis Strange were in the eight-man field, after playing in another made-for-South Africa event the week before.

"I think Bradley is against apartheid and the conditions there," Gilbert's agent David Baglibter was quoted as saying in USA Today. "I'm not sure he thinks that sports should be politicized."

It's good to know Gilbert's stand on apartheid. I can hardly wait to hear his stand on other issues. Child abuse--good or bad?

"Golfers all have their heads in the sand, all of 'em," Ashe says. "They are the most apolitical bunch of athletes I know. They're all 5-11, blond, went to Oklahoma; they're all right-wing Republicans. As a group, they don't give a damn."

On the current United Nations list of sports people who ignore the ban, there are 60 male and female golfers.

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