The phenomenal feats of Wayde van Niekerk, the son of an anti-apartheid sportswoman mother oppressed by apartheid South Africa, are giving respect to the country’s democratic era but also ensuring acknowledgement of the powerful and intense contribution of anti-apartheid sport activism in the elimination of apartheid in South Africa.
Sacrifices made by the anti-apartheid sports movement and sportspeople are today being rewarded as the sports prowess of children of oppressed black South Africans is surfacing and achieving on the global sports terrain. And they do not get any bigger than Van Niekerk’s world-record-setting gold medal performance in the mens 400-metres sprint at the Rio Olympics on Sunday night.
Out of South Africa’s journey from the horrendous and brutal apartheid-era to life in a constitutional democracy, comes the real life story of processing sports lives from an ‘Olympics of the Oppressed’ to an “Olympics For All’.
During apartheid, an oppressed woman used her sports talent to contribute to freedom from apartheid. Over 20 years later, in a democratic country, she watches her son perform amazing feats on the international athletics track.
The woman is Odessa Swarts, a champion sprint athlete during the ’70s and ’80s who participated in anti-apartheid, non-racial sport under the organisation of the South African Council on Sport (Sacos). The son is the 2015 400m world champion, 2016 Rio Olympics champion and current world record holder, Wayde van Niekerk.
Although Odessa longed to know her international capabilities, she stood diligently and unselfishly with anti-apartheid sport. At the top of her athletics prowess, Odessa Swarts competed in inter-provincial athletics events and the annual national championship on grass, gravel and uneven tracks; athletics tracks in Cape Town’s disadvantaged communities such as Green Point track, Athlone and Vygieskraal stadiums, Dal Josafat stadium in Paarl and Curries
Oppressed and black women in apartheid South Africa struggled against apartheid legislation and with living in under-resourced communities. Recreational and sports facilities were neglected but oppressed women found their way through school and community sports into organised sports structures where they participated. Volunteer sports officials and leaders from oppressed communities organised anti-apartheid, non-racial sport, giving all sportspeople dignity and humanity without reference to their skin colour.
The struggle for freedom was long, hard and challenging. International isolation of apartheid sport was advocated around the world. Elimination of apartheid from South African society was fought for in the work-place, in education, in living spaces, in love and sport.
The much neglected and often forgotten pivotal and dynamic contribution of anti-apartheid sports activism and organisation to the creation of democracy in South Africa refuses to be buried. Moments, like Van Niekerk’s world record achievements, appear when we connect the dots of how oppressed sports people struggled to participate in sport, yet they still achieved remarkable feats. The anti-apartheid sportspeople sacrificed their sports talent, refusing to support international recognition of apartheid South Africa and its all-white teams. Instead, they sacrificed and advocated against apartheid through sport — fighting the system and sacrificing their own talents.
Champion anti-apartheid athlete Odessa Swarts participated in the SACOS Sports Festivals held in Cape Town in the ’80s. Bringing together thousands of supporters and anti-apartheid athletes in several sports codes, these non-corporate funded sports festivals, became popularly known as the ‘Olympics of the Oppressed.’
They were the highest ceiling of participation for oppressed sports people under Sacos. Then came initiatives towards sports unification of both anti-apartheid, non-racial sport and establishment sport. And a new era was ushered in for South African sport to be internationally recognised.
Much talent has come through the sports pyramid; an overwhelming amount of talented youth has also been lost through the system.
Somehow, the junior talent of Wayde van Niekerk was looked after and guided. Coming through school sports in Kraaifontein in Cape Town into junior structures of provincial athletics to international representation, Van Niekerk has been emerging.
Today, he is Olympic champion, world champion and world record holder in the men’s 400m. He would have often been told about his mother’s feats in athletics, how she would run for his freedom to legitimately represent a democratic SA. His father, too, was an athlete. Wayde van Niekerk knows he is privileged to be participating in an apartheid-free country while his parents had to sacrifice their athletics talent. He’s taken very chance given to him and paid it back to South African society.
There’s no doubt that one of the most inspirational stories from the Rio Olympics is a South African story from its ugly apartheid past to a hopeful democratic era, from participation in sport for freedom in events like ‘Olympics of the Oppressed’ to awesome accomplishments at the Olympics.
Main Photo: Wayde van Niekerk by Cheryl Roberts