JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When South Africa's Olympic boss, Sam Ramsamy, announced a few days ago that his nation's absence from the Olympics would end next summer, after 32 years, the whoops of delight echoed from Cape Town to Johannesburg.
But some of the cheers quickly turned to boos when whites learned there was a small catch.
South Africans would be in Barcelona all right--but without the national flag, the national anthem or the national sporting symbol, the springbok.
Instead, the first multiracial South African Olympic team would have a newly designed flag and a new anthem--Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." And the only South African springboks will be the four-legged kind nibbling grass in the country's game parks.
The old symbols, though linked with the apartheid state in the eyes of millions of blacks, are being portrayed these days by President Frederik W. de Klerk as the South African equivalent of Mom, baseball and apple pie.
"The green and gold, with the springbok, has a proud history," De Klerk told a recent party meeting in Pretoria. "And I think it is shortsighted to disregard these facts and trample a proud tradition underfoot."
De Klerk's minister of sport, Louis Pienaar, called it "a slap in the face of all South Africans." A day later, Pienaar was on the stump again, calling the decision "arrogant, insensitive and undemocratic."
The furor has risen from the emotional heart of South Africa's past, and it suggests the difficult road that lies ahead for this country as it attempts to undo the damage of apartheid and heal the deep wounds that remain.
As usual, the controversy has split South Africa along racial lines.
On one side of the debate are the black masses, who remember the South African flag flown over police stations and other notorious symbols of apartheid, the national anthem sung with such fervor by De Klerk's ancestors and other architects of apartheid and the springbok emblem that for years was denied to black athletes.
On the other side of the debate are whites who believe they have no apologies to make for the past. Apartheid was a well-meaning policy that didn't work, De Klerk has said. And he argues that the flag, anthem and springbok have always stood for all South Africans, black as well as white.
Ramsamy said that neither the new flag nor the new anthem are intended as permanent replacements. Those will only emerge once a new government, elected by black and white South Africans, is in place.
Nevertheless, he has touched a nerve among whites, many of whom fear that a government run by blacks will replace the hallowed symbols of the past, rewrite street and city names and topple statues of Afrikaner heroes.
Only the athletes--black and white--eyeing their first crack at Olympic medals, have expressed a willingness to compromise.
"White South Africans are going to have to accept the fact that some of our symbols are not loved or deeply respected by all South Africans," said Bruce Fordyce, one of the country's top marathon runners, who is white.
"Athletes I've spoken to are prepared to accept any compromise, anything to get to Barcelona," Fordyce added. "We will wear purple with pink spots on and be quite happy to be called bush pigs, just to get to Barcelona."
Evette de Klerk, a white sprinter and Olympic medalist hopeful (who is no relation to the president), said South Africans should stop "moaning and groaning about what flag and what anthem we are going to use."
"I don't think everyone is happy, but as long as the flag has South Africa on it, I'm satisfied," she added.
One of the country's leading distance runners, Xolile Yawa, who is black, says he's always known that the springbok was doomed because of its historical association with white exclusivity in sports.
"I've been very proud to wear the springbok colors. Very proud," Yawa said. "But now we've got to forget the past and try a new thing. We're in a new South Africa. And the important thing is that we go to the Olympics."
The new flag, designed as a symbol of South African unity, has five Olympic circles on a gray diamond-shaped background. The diamond represents the country's mineral wealth, and the flag's colors of blue, brown and green stand for the sea, the land and the crops.
It will replace South Africa's flag and the springbok emblem. "Ode to Joy," the international Olympic hymn, will replace "Die Stem," or "The Call of South Africa," a turgid hymn that celebrates Afrikaner freedom from the "enslavement" of British colonialists.
"We felt that it would not be appropriate to use symbols and flags used by sections of our communities in the past until such time as a national decision (on such symbols) is taken by all South Africans," Ramsamy said.
The South African flag has led every South African team into the Olympics since 1928, though it shared prominence with the Union Jack until the country's last Olympic appearance, at the Rome Games in 1960.