*The main picture depicts the ash track at the Hewat Training College in Crawford, Cape Town.
SOUTH AFRICAN-born Freddie Williams, who left the country in 1984 and went on to represent Canada at the 1992 Olympics, is back in Cape Town after nearly 20 years away.
Williams left South Africa in 1984 and has only been back in 1986 to be at his father’s funeral.
Since then he has had tremendous athletics career here and all over the world, most notably in America, Canada and Europe.
Since his arrival last week, he has spoken to a number of people, including coach Dave Spence and local miler and former rival Johan Fourie.
Says Williams: “In my conversation with Johan, he said that the telephone call gave him goose bumps and awesome memories and flashbacks.”
Time to reflect
“It’s great to be back as a ‘home boy’ and meeting several of my old mates,” says Williams. While in South Africa, Williams found time to reflect on aspects of his athletics career that had started at Heathfield High in the 1970s.His PE teacher, Andrew October, spotted his talents almost by accident. Williams, who could not qualify for the sprints, was told by October to come back the next day for the two-lap race – and the rest is history.
Training and discipline
He not only became Heathfield’s top 800m runner but Western Province and South Africa’s best in the 1970s and 1980/81.
“Mr October taught me about training and discipline. He was the one who had discovered me. That is where it all started,” says Williams.October was thrilled when he heard from Williams on the telephone: “It is always great that my former pupils remember me and always staying in contact with me.”
From being a top middle- distance athlete and record holder in Sacos, Williams went on to become a double Springbok athlete in the 800m with the then South African Amateur Athletics Union.
Williams’ journey to Barcelona was precipitated by a political incident in 1980.
Williams, who had completed his matric in 1980, found himself in the red-hot cauldron of South African sport and politics when he trained with a few white UCT students (this was not allowed because of Sacos’ policy and principle of non-collaboration) in Newlands forest.
This had happened while being a first-year student at the old Hewat Teacher’s Training College in 1981, and Williams had been ejected from Hewat by the Oxford-educated and diehard member of the South African Council on Sport (Sacos) Dr Richard Rive who was the head of the English Department at Hewat.
“At the time Dr Rive had asked for my books and had given me 24 hours to vacate the education department’s premises for having trained with the UCT athletes.”
Few, if anyone, would have realised the impact the Rive decision had on an equally determined Williams who was intent on reaching the pinnacle and fulfillment of his potential as an athlete much in the way Rive had done academically. Rive was a top athlete in the late 1940s.
Competing in international sport in 1981 was impossible for all South Africans.
Because of the National Party’s race laws, national and international anti-apartheid campaigns as early as the 1950s, with Dennis Brutus in the forefront, had been waged to bar South Africa from international sport. The National Party came to power in 1948 in an all-white election, excluding blacks from the voters’ roll.
As a result, South Africa had been barred from the 18th Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1960 by the International Olympic Committee for failure to renounce racial discrimination in sport and the IOC had opposed the ban in South Africa between white and black athletes.
Complete isolation was yet to come and so was the political fallout in the Basil D’Oliveira affair in 1968 which precipitated, if not inadvertently, the isolation of South African sport by 1970. A complete blackout of international sport.
Politics and sport
The separation of black and white people was to extend to marriages, residential areas, public amenities, schools, culture and so on.
During apartheid (the separation of white and black people), the National Party government – a white Afrikaner government – tried to exploit black athletes to show to the world that here, in South Africa, there had been integration. The world did not suffer fools.
It was also during this time (1970s and 80s) when Sacos vehemently opposed the separation of politics and sport, just like the East and West had done, but for different political reasons. Think America’s boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980. Think Russia’s boycott of the Los Angeles Games in 1984.
Sport and politics do mix, here and abroad, of that there can be no question.
The political set up in South Africa, on both sides did not appear to affect Williams, on the contrary, I think it had, as he might have felt that politics had stunted his growth as an athlete whether one agrees or disagrees with his attitude and action.
He was not willing to sacrifice his athletics career, as an athlete, at the altar of Sacos.
After the Rive incident, Williams switched allegiance and turned out for the Atlantic athletics club, remembering being referred to as the “coloured boy” striding to victory in a 1500m at the Collison Cup, with the establishment, at the Green Point stadium.
Williams’ talent was apparent, his meteoric rise to the number one spot in the 800m in South Africa was beyond question as he trounced the white Western Province athletes under Jannie Momberg and later the SA athletes.
Williams, though, was to face even more adversity in his quest for stardom in the 800m. He would later experience rejection by the establishment because of politics.
Williams reveals some startling evidence in the face of Momberg’s utterances when, according to Williams, Momberg said in a heavy Afrikaans:
“Wat doen jy nou om die land te verlaat, en jy sal nie suksevol wees nie en in ses maande sal jy weer by die huis wees.”
Translated meaning: “What are you doing now by leaving the land, you will not be successful and in six months you will be back at home?”
Williams, it appears, wasn’t willing to be used as a pawn by Momberg in getting white South Africa back into international sport.
Williams first had a glimpse of international sport at the first track and field championships in Helsinki in 1983 where the great Carl Lewis’ international career had started. Williams was there with the Springbok team as spectators.
“Helsinki was awesome, it was the first international meet for me even though we were there as spectators, and it was also the first world track and field championships,” says Williams.
The next year, 1984, Williams jumped ship and boarded a plane to the States.
Williams had the quest for testing himself against the best in the world — rightly or wrongly. This is what the Williams’ wheel of track athletics had seemed to tell us. He could not achieve being the best or testing his mettle against world class opposition under Jannie Momberg neither, for that matter, under white rule in the 1980s, nor as an athlete under Sacos.
Williams left South Africa to take up a full track scholarship at Abilene Christian University, Texas, America.
There he settled with his wife Daphne and two daughters Lesley-Ann and Megan, for the past 24 years.
Red-faced Momberg was disappointed and had hoped Williams would assist (read exploit Williams) white South Africa in breaking the isolation of South African sport and gain international recognition and participation despite the apartheid regime. There was no such luck.
Momberg was infamously known to have assisted South African Zola Budd in representing England in the disastrous 5000m at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. That attempt, too, failed to break sports isolation in South Africa.
It was coach Donald Timm who said “we have to look for athletic opportunities elsewhere” as Williams had reached the pinnacle in the South African Amateur Athletics Union (the white union).
In America, Williams had established himself as an 800m athlete at their National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA division 2) colleges. He is the only college athlete to have won every NCAA 800m race at freshman, sophomore, junior and senior level (1984-1987).
He had set a world indoor record in the 1000m at the NCAA division 1 Indoor championship in 1986 and won the outdoor 800m NCCA division 1 championships the same year.
When Williams graduated with his science degree in maths and business administration, he and his wife Daphne immigrated to Canada in 1989.
Williams topped off his career with a Canadian 800m record time of 1:45.13 set at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart.
Williams’ athletics career culminated, at the age of 31, as captain of the Canadian team and a place in the semifinals of the 800m at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
It was ironic, if not coincidental, that Williams represented Canada at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, the same year South Africa had been readmitted into international sport, the year in which South Africa had sent an athletics team to Barcelona! – Written by Clement du Plessis, and never published in its entirety, 28 April 2008