A group of South African athletes, both black and white, were in Los Angeles recently for the Olympic Games - not as competitors (though some had performance times that would have placed them in an Olympic final) but as spectators, dotted about the vast coliseum. They were given tourist visas to enter the United States and told to keep a low profile.
South Africa last competed in the Olympics in Rome in 1960. South Africa was banned from the 1964 Olympics because of the government's segregationist policies, and since 1976 even individual track and field athletes from South Africa have been prohibited from competing overseas.
Sydney Maree, a black South African athlete, now an American citizen (injury kept him from competing with the US Olympic team in Los Angeles), would have no love for the South African system, yet he condemns the ban. ''Why punish the individual athletes?'' he asks. The answer, it would seem, is that it's so easy to do. It looks good, even if little is accomplished.
True enough, initial pressure on South Africa to mend its ways, advanced, by decades perhaps, integration on the sports field, particularly in track and field. That much having been accomplished, however, the ban is now counterproductive. It hinders race relations, where the opportunity for international competition would enhance them.
Some Europeans might be forgiven for not recognizing this, but in the US, where first the Olympics and later professional sports have done so much to promote racial harmony, it should be obvious.
What South Africa desperately needs is a mixed team of blacks, whites, and Asians which the whole community can cheer on. A local track meet cannot match international competition in this respect. In former years South African blacks and Asians invariably cheered for the visiting side, and why not? Because of their color, no one of their community was considered for the home team, so they had every reason to root for the visitors. For their part, South African whites had no opportunity to cheer on a local black athlete.
In a small way they did, back in the early 1960s. Without much fanfare, because so many government officials heartily disapproved of the ''experiment,'' a group of black and white South African boxers flew to the US to compete in the Golden Gloves tournament. To show how sensitive the issue was at the time, the black and white boxers flew out on separate planes to London. Only there did they meet up and fly on to the US as a team.
I was a sportswriter for the Johannesburg Star at the time and was told later by the team manager that the comaraderie between the racial groups developed almost instantly as blacks and whites trained together, massaged each other on rubdown tables, and cheered for each other at ringside. For the first time black and white athletes from South Africa had a common goal, and a common bond resulted. For the first time, too, the folks back home had a truly representative national team to root for. Not one of my acquaintances disapproved; everyone seemed to enjoy the idea. And, as if the whole trip had been stage-managed to boost interracial satisfaction, two South Africans returned with a Golden Gloves title - one black and one white.
By 1964 the International Olympic Committee had given South Africa an ultimatum: Send a multiracial team to the games, chosen on merit, or you are out. In international circles the conviction existed that the South African government would step in and deny black members their passports, even if the South African Olympic Committee chose a team on merit. But at the IOC meeting preceding the Tokyo Olympics the South African delegates were able to say, in effect: ''Gentlemen, you will be pleased to hear that we have assurances from our government that no black athlete will be denied his passport.''
The effect, I was told by a delegate, was something startlingly opposite to pleasure on the part of some members. There was much hasty lobbying, notably on the part of Soviet bloc and African members, and a new set of demands were made the following day: Integrate all sports within South Africa. At the time, that was impossible, and a history making multiracial Olympic team from South Africa was denied the opportunity to exist. South African athletes have been on the skids ever since, and the repeated opportunities to bring the races together in the apartheid society have been denied.
To South African athletes, cynical after years of trying to get back into international competition, the hypocrisy is obvious: South Africa's foes are more interested in ''punishing'' the South African government than in promoting racial harmony in the country, despite their protests to the contrary.
The sports ban is effective, they say, where little else is. Yes, indeed, but decidedly counterproductive.