BY CLEMENT DU PLESSIS
THIS is part one of the Selwyn Steyn story in a two-part series.
“THE most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”
Probably the most famous quotation by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the first modern Olympic Games on 6 April 1896 held in Athens, Greece, with athletes from 14 countries participating.
White South Africa had sent athletes to the Olympics between 1904 (St. Louis, Missouri, America) and 1960 (Rome), whereafter the International Olympic Committee banned South Africa from the Olympic Movement over South Africa’s policy of apartheid (1948-1994).
South Africa was welcomed back to the Olympics in 1992 in Barcelona with the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and in anticipation of South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994.
During the period of isolation from the Olympics, there were sporting casualties both in privileged white South Africa as well as the marginalised and disenfranchised black South Africa.
Both communities organised athletics on a white and black basis; the black basis being broken up into coloured and blacks.
The highest accolade in the sport in South Africa belonged to one of three racial affiliations: the predominantly white South African Amateur Athletics Union (SAAAU), the predominantly coloured South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB), and the predominantly black African Amateur Athletics and Cycling Union (AAA&CU).
This period was a terrible time for coach and athlete alike who could not test themselves against the athletes of the SAAAU and AAA&CU in South Africa and against the world’s best on the Grand Prix and Golden League circuits (now Diamond League).
Selwyn Steyn, a coloured sports master at an all-coloured school, Grassdale High School, like hundreds of coloured sports masters, had to sacrifice athletes on the basis of political principle.
A generational talent such as Shaun Vester, the 15-year-old track star of Grassdale High School, who caused a stir when he clocked a time of 10,5 seconds in the 100m at the Vygieskraal stadium without even using starting blocks, never had the opportunity (like thousands of other sportspersons in South Africa) to test his ability against the world’s best. The year was 1985 and South Africa was in the middle of a state of emergency.
One of the best
“At this stage, Vester was probably one of the best athletes in Africa. Other athletes who made the province athletics side [team] were Amiena Dollie (100m and 200m), Byron Bailey (800m and 1500m), Elton Jantjies (200m and 400m), Rygana Jackson (shotput and discus). The Grassdale staff were all very supportive and assisted with sports activities,” says Steyn.
His charges had to navigate the dangerous sections of Grassy Park, only to make it to inferior training facilities – a veld that doubled-up as a training venue.
Athletics and rugby
These were the conditions Steyn and many other athletes and coaches had to endure during this period.
Steyn is a former Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (WPSSSU) athlete and WPSSSU rugby player while a pupil at Belgravia High School in Athlone.
Said Steyn: “I had a good time at Belgravia High. I was fortunate that I had good teachers such as Ikey van der Rhede (professor and former vice-rector at UWC) and John Volmink (professor of mathematics). Conditions for sport at the school and surrounding areas were terrible as we only had a sandy playground and sandy fields. I did not participate in athletics at club level as travelling from Fairways was an issue for me.”
He remembers a number of top sportspersons and WPSSSU representatives at the school which included Peter Meyer (high jump and 200m), Patrick Forbes (long jump and 100m), Rachel Esau (sprinter), Brian Louw (middle distance), Mohammad Paleker (sprints) and Andrew James (sprints).
The footballers who attended Belgravia are familiar names such as Daniel ‘Dot’ Borman (Cape Town Spurs), Ronald Camphor (Santos) and Clive Daries (Cape Town Spurs).
His schoolmates Wellisley Momberg and Glen Johnson played rugby in the same team as him. Initially, Johnson wasn’t allowed to play for the school because of his ties with the South African Rugby Federation (perceived as a sell-out and stooge rugby formation of the apartheid government).
However, Johnson quit the Federation and joined the ranks of the anti-apartheid sports movement, the South African Council on Sport (Sacos) in 1974-75.
Steyn had a passion for rugby above athletics, or so it seemed.
“Timmy Gelderbloem was the best WP (Saru) scrumhalf I have seen and played with,” says Steyn.
He remembers Trevor Mitchell from Athlone High, the WP fullback who played for Perseverance. He played with them from primary school days. Steyn’s “highlight was playing in the curtain raiser for City and Suburban juniors against WP Board in 1972 or 1973 to a Saru match under floodlights at the Green Point Stadium (not the Green Point Track)”.
While at Belgravia, he captained the rugby A-team.
He also excelled in table tennis and enjoyed playing against the legendary Pedro Meyer, Phaldy Bachelor, and Warren Williams – household names in the table tennis fraternity.
(Featured photograph: Steyn won the boys open long jump with a distance of 6,50m at the Champion of Champions at the Athlone stadium in 1975)
*Part two will appear next week.