THE morality of pursuing sporting contacts with South Africa has become the central question posed by two ``rebel'' tours of the apartheid state by British athletes. Despite protests from sporting authorities in many countries, an English professional cricket team plans to travel to South Africa early next year. Also, a rugby team containing a dozen English and Welsh players has been invited to South Africa to mark the centenary of the sport in that country.
The two tours are sending shock waves through the world of sport. Black African countries are threatening to boycott the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand in January, and the British government has been urged to deny passports to the sportsmen.
In England, members of the rebel cricket team are the focus of protests at grounds where they play. Two black players who agreed to make the trip to South Africa later decided to pull out after they received death threats from anti-apartheid activists.
The players are each being paid around 100,000 ($158,000) to play in South Africa. Those who accept these terms automatically disqualify themselves from playing for official England teams for five years. So far, however, the team's captain, Mike Gatting, whose fee is 200,000 ($316,000), has refused to accept arguments that he and his fellow rebels should think again.
The British government, while deploring the cricket and rugby tours, has refused to intervene.
In South Africa itself, a coalition of anti-apartheid organizations has said it will stage demonstrations throughout the rebels' tour, if it happens.
Shridath Ramphal, secretary general of the Commonwealth, which is made up of former British dependencies, has warned that helping white-ruled South Africa break out of its sporting isolation is immoral.
Mr. Ramphal and other Commonwealth leaders fear that a boycott of the New Zealand games in January would ruin the event. African runners are star attractions at international athletic gatherings. African states could also probably persuade athletes from Caribbean and Asian Commonwealth members to join the boycott.
South Africa's colored (mixed race) cricketers have appealed to Mr. Gatting and his team to abandon their planned tour. Vincent Barnes, a leading colored player, said: ``When we protest against the tour, there will be clashes with the police, because demonstrations are banned in South Africa. This means that Gatting's team could have blood on their hands.''
Gatting's answer is that he and his rebel team ``are cricketers, not politicians. ``I do not know a lot about apartheid, but our tour may help to break down racial barriers,'' he said.
Ramphal strongly denies this. ``British sportsmen who play in South Africa for money are helping to maintain apartheid. There can be no morality in that.''
The rebel cricket team faces a powerful financial temptation from the tour's white South African organizers. A cricketer playing for an English county team may earn a mere 15,000 ($23,700) in a year. Gatting's men will earn five times that amount in 12 weeks.
The footballers, who are supposedly amateur, are alleged to have been offered large financial inducements by the rugby authorities in South Africa.
Because of its apartheid policies, South Africa has been effectively isolated from sporting contacts with the rest of the world for over 20 years. British Commonwealth members formally agreed 10 years ago to discourage sporting contacts with South Africa.