Apartheid, Exclusion and Ashe | South Africa’s complicated history in international sports


The world’s attention is currently focused on South Africa, the host nation for the 2010 World Cup. Hosting an internationally revered tournament is always a privilege, but for South Africa in particular, it carries tremendous meaning because of their exclusion from global competitions for many decades in the 20th century.

Beginning in the 1960s, the international sports community began to ostracize South Africa due to its apartheid policies. Apartheid was an enforced system of segregation based on race and ethnicity that the South African government began in 1948 (although its precursors date back to the 19th century) and ended in 1994. Apartheid restricted the rights, movements and access of non-white citizens, causing protests, civil unrest, forced removals and atrocities across the country. It also meant that South African sports teams were segregated.

In 1961 the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA, who holds the World Cup) suspended South Africa’s membership, although it was reinstated in 1963. They were again suspended in 1964 until 1976 when they were expelled. In 1962 the United Nations passed a resolution condemning apartheid and asking nations to participate in a voluntary boycott of South Africa in all respects. As a result of the boycott, South Africa was banned from the Olympics beginning with the Tokyo Summer Games in 1964, although many western nations continued to trade with South Africa through the 1980s. They continued to compete in the Paralympics until 1976, when they were asked not to attend. Additionally, the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement, discouraged British Commonwealth nations from competing and interacting with South African teams and players in sports. During this period, many of the best South African athletes obtained foreign citizenship and left the country in order to be able to compete on the world stage.

In 1969 Arthur Ashe attempted to participate in the South African Open tennis tournament but was denied a visa. He used this denial as a catalyst to publicize the injustices of the apartheid system. He was later approved for a visa to compete in the 1973 Open, becoming the only black player in the tournament. He remained focused on South Africa and in 1983 co-chaired the committee Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid with Harry Belafonte.
In 1990, President F. W. de Klerk reversed the government position on apartheid, releasing Nelson Mandela, who had been imprisoned for 27 years because of his anti-apartheid activism, and legalizing anti-apartheid political groups. After a period of negotiations and planning, in 1994 South Africa held its first open election where citizens could vote regardless of race and Mandela was elected president.

As a result of the changes in 1990, the international sports community began to once again recognize South Africa. In 1992 they sent their first Olympic team in over 30 years to the Barcelona Summer Games. In 1995 the Rugby World Cup was held in South Africa. Their team won and in a pivotal moment President Mandela wore the team’s shirt and cap while presenting the Cup to the team captain. This iconic moment brought black and white South Africans together in support of their team. President Mandela won the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage in 2009 in honor of this and his lifelong dedication to ending apartheid and leading South Africa in the post-apartheid era.

3 replies
  1. John W. Meyers
    John W. Meyers says:

    Today we say goodbye to Mohamad Ali as he is laid to rest. For all you did to raise us, I want to say, “Thankyou…You really were ‘The Greatest!'”

  2. Rachel Green
    Rachel Green says:

    Arthur ashe was a great human being and cared about ending apartheid so much. Not to mention his mad tennis skills. Everyone should be thankful for him and all he did for society.


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