Olympic Champion Wayde Van Niekerk Goes From The ‘Olympics Of The Oppressed’ To The World Olympics By Cheryl Roberts

15 Aug

The phenomenal sports feats of the son of an anti-apartheid sportswoman mother oppressed by apartheid South Africa, Olympic champion and 400m world record holder, Wayde van Niekerk are giving respect to a South Africa in the democratic era but also ensuring acknowledgement of the powerful and intense contribution of anti-apartheid sport activism to the elimination of apartheid in South Africa.

Sacrifices made by the anti-apartheid sports movement and sports structures are today being rewarded as the sports prowess of children of oppressed black South Africans is surfacing and achieving on the global sports terrain.

So much phenomenal and awesome life stories are coming out of the Rio Olympics. Out of South Africa’s journey from the horrendous apartheid era to life in democratic South Africa comes the real life story of processing sports lives from an ‘Olympics Of  The Oppressed’ to an “Olympics For All’.

An oppressed woman during the horrendous apartheid era 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 70’s and 80’s who participated in anti-apartheid, non-racial sport under the organisation that was South African Council on Sport (SACOS). The son is 2015 world 400m champion, 2016 Rio Olympics champion and current 400m world record holder, Wayde van Niekerk.

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 sports people 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 appear when we connect the dots, how oppressed sports people struggled to participate in sport, yet they still achieved remarkable feats. The anti-apartheid sports people sacrificed their sports talent, refusing to support international recognition of apartheid South Africa. Instead, they sacrificed and advocated against apartheid though sport.

Champion anti-apartheid athlete Odessa Swarts participated in the SACOS Sports Festivals held in Cape Town in the 1980’s. Bringing together thousands of anti-apartheid athletes in several sports codes and supporters, 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, Wayde 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.IMG_7285

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