Springboks: US tour a political play?

One of the most closely guarded secrets in Chicago this week is where South Africa's traveling rugby team, the Springboks, will play its scheduled Midwestern match this weekend.

If it is played at all -- and organizers insist it will be even if in a cornfield -- it may well be a game without an audience.

Such willingness to play without the usual income generated by ticket sales has fueled suspicions among critics here that it is not so much a sporting as a propaganda victory that the South African team is eager to score.

For many of those protesting the team's Chicago visit, the secrecy surrounding the choice of a site convinces them that their target is well chosen.

"This is far more than a good old sporting event," insists Chicago Alderman Danny K. Davis."It seems to me this is a political action aimed at propagandizing."

"I think the big thing they want is to be able to go back home and say they played successfully in the United States," agrees Norman Watkins of Clergy and Laity Concerned, a group involved in protests against the team. In his view: "This could be a very hot week."

For the US, there may be ramifications beyond any immediate reactions to the Springboks visit.

The International Olympic Committee meets in West Germany Sept. 22, and there have been unconfirmed reports that the Soviet Union may request that the committee move the 1984 summer Olympic games from Los Angeles because of the south African team's visit here. In any case, some 50 countries, including the Soviet Union and many in Africa, have threatened to pull out of the games because of the visit. Though urged to deny visas to the South African visitors in the first place, the State Department declined to get involved with what official term "private sporting groups."

Tour organizers are clearly worried that there could be a repeat performance of the violent demonstrations sparked in New Zealand by the team's appearance there. Spokesmen for the springboks, which has become a travelling target for opponents of South Africa's apartheid policies, insist that they are not politicians and represent the South African Rugby Board, not their government. The team has two "coloured" (mixed race) members.

The Midwest Rugby Union, which will put up an amateur all-star team to oppose the Springboks, say lack of adequate security personnel is the reason for keeping the site secret. It is the same reason given by New York City and Rochester, N.Y., officials for cancelling Springbok matches scheduled in those cities next week. The team's three stop US tour now includes only Chicago and Albany, N.Y., with a third location in the northeast still a question mark.

Chicago, usually among the nation's most hospitable cities when it comes to overseas visitors, in this case virtually rolled up its welcome mat. Within hours after the team's arrival here Sept. 14 Mayor Jane Byrne introduced a resolution in the City Council denouncing the team's intention to play here and labeling South Africa's apartheid policy "the shame of the century." It won unanimous approval.

The mayor's resolution borrowed heavily from a tougher, more legally questionable one introduced some weeks earlier by Alderman Davis. It would have barred the city from allowing any of its property to be used for the game and would have urged the park district, owners of private arenas, and neighboring suburbs to take a similarly strong stand.

Some Chicago aldermen such as Martin Oberman, who sponsored resolutions in the past (so far without success) to keep Chicago from placing its funds in any banks that make loans or do business with South Africa, say the Windy City could easily have afforded to take the stronger stand.

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