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Laut: African Tour Not Black, White

February 22, 1990|KEN McALPINE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The people that went there, they know its wrong," said George Mehale, a South African who coaches track and field at Cal State Long Beach. "Nothing changed because they went."

"If anything, people are telling me informally that in a way they hurt the cause--not major injury, but they certainly did set things back," said TAC President Frank Greenberg, one of several TAC officials who voted to ban the athletes who participated in the 1988 tour. "I think it's counterproductive when individuals go. Global reaction against South Africa is getting stronger, that pressure has already produced some changes."

Supporters of sanctions against South Africa say the sanctions contributed to President Frederik De Klerk's recent decisions to release political prisoners such as Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela.

De Klerk also lifted a decades-old ban on the African National Congress and more than a dozen other groups dedicated to the abolition of apartheid; eased government censorship of the media; and asked his justice department to reserve capital penalties for the most severe crimes.

But De Klerk, whose Nationalist Party has ruled South Africa since 1948 and is thus responsible for instituting the most repulsive separatist laws, left most of the pillars of apartheid intact. The pass laws, which require blacks to carry legal documents when traveling outside their townships, are still enforced and the nation's black citizens are still not entitled to participate in the government or in national elections.

Laut prefers to steer clear of debate. Others, however, vehemently defend the tours.

"We spent time doing clinics, promoting goodwill and helping people of all colors," said tour organizer and coach Dick Tomlinson. "Ours is a purely humanitarian effort. We're trying to bring understanding and turn the lights on the South African situation so people will realize that there are millions of black South Africans who are being deprived of international sport."

Laut said he has seen few signs of segregation during his trips to South Africa. Critics argue that Laut and his fellow athletes were sheltered from apartheid's worst. Although they were free to travel as they wished--including visits to the volatile black townships of Soweto and Crossroads--one team member admitted there was "a strong possibility" she and her fellow athletes were sheltered during their visit.

"We did go different places, but they had an itinerary set up with where they were going to take us and what we were going to do," said Pamela Page, a hurdler who participated in the most recent tour. Page, who is black, also said that despite outward appearances of normalcy, something was amiss.

"People were nice and they kept saying, 'We're trying to change, we're trying to change,' but it was still strange," Page said. "I'd be shopping and they (white South Africans) would just kind of stop and look at me like, 'Wait a minute.' It kind of caught them off guard."

But while Laut admits he knows little about South Africa's politics, he does know something of sport and he sees in South Africa a potential track powerhouse.

"There's just an unbelievable amount of talent over there, it's just amazing," Laut said. "If they could become a part of the world, they would be a major power in track and field in 10 years. That's my sincere belief."

During the November tour, Laut and the rest of the U. S. contingent met briefly with De Klerk. According to Laut, the president lent his support to the tour and expressed hope that the South African athletes would soon be able to compete internationally.

"They've got a lot of national pride and I think they would really like to see their country get back into international competition," Laut said.

Laut also expresses admiration for the South African athletes who continue to train and compete in the face of an international ban that keeps them at home, leaving them to compete against the same faces in the same places.

"When I was in high school and college I always had that Olympic medal as my dream. That was my focus, the driving force that kept me going . . . ," Laut said. "The South African athlete doesn't have that dream, but he keeps working as hard as we do, maybe harder. To me that determination is amazing."

For Laut, training and competition have also taken on a slightly different slant from his college days. He has pared his training substantially--slipping away from work in the afternoon to put the shot at Hueneme High or lift weights in the garage of his home.

"If I'm lucky, I can get in two hours of training a day," Laut said. "It's not what I need, but I know what to do now and I can eliminate a lot of the nonsense stuff that I used to do. I just do the exercises that will help me throw the shot, which is basically the whole name of the game."

Laut will return to South Africa, possibly as early as April for the South African national championships. According to Laut, a full team will probably return to South Africa again this fall and there is talk of a contract with sponsors and the South African Athletic Union that would guarantee such visits for the next three to five years.

Laut's ultimate goal, however, is to compete in South Africa as a member of an official U. S. team.

"I'd like to be able to represent the United States, have USA colors, raise the flag and compete for the United States," Laut said.

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