SOUTH AFRICAN athletes have a new spring in their step at the prospect of returning to international sports after nearly three decades of isolation under apartheid rule. Soccer, the most popular and most integrated sport - racially mixed since the late 1970s - is set to lead the country back into the international arena by September, the date by which President Frederik de Klerk has vowed apartheid laws will be scrapped.
``It will be a big boost to get into world soccer,'' says Zane Moosa, one of the country's most promising midfielders and a prime candidate for a South African national team.
Soccer is likely to be followed by track and field, cricket, and rugby - the sport favored by the ruling Afrikaner minority.
Coaches are discussing what was unthinkable only a year ago - a South African team to bid for three African places at the World Cup in the United States in 1994. (Here, soccer is the only team sport dominated by blacks.)
``In South Africa you have to play for a top black team to gain recognition in the sport,'' says Mr. Moosa, a South African of mixed-race who plays for the largely black Mamelodi Sundowns.
There are 1.2 million registered soccer players here, and the South African Football Association (SAFA), formerly the National Soccer League (NSL) draws 5 million spectators annually. These figures dwarf those of the two favorite ``white'' sports - rugby and cricket.
South Africa's exclusion from international sports competition has been one of the most effective sanctions applied, political scientists and diplomats say. Now that the end of apartheid is in sight, international lobby groups have begun to make a distinction between economic sanctions and the sports boycott, signaling that the time has come to drop the latter.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has given South Africa until September to scrap apartheid and unify fragmented sporting bodies. The African National Congress (ANC), despite slow progress on political negotiations, has been actively promoting sports unity.
The once-total leverage enjoyed by anti-apartheid sports groups to maintain the international boycott rapidly is being eroded by an African-led push for South Africa's return to the Olympics. On April 15, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch said South Africa's presence at the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona was ``virtually certain'' if the scheduled repeal of apartheid laws in June went ahead.
But decades of isolation have taken a heavy toll on the country's athletes and on the standard of team sports like soccer, rugby, and cricket.
In the past, predominantly white sports (rugby, cricket, golf) have taken the lion's share of sponsor money, but predominantly black soccer has been increasing its share dramatically in recent years.
``There will be massive profits for sport when the international tours come to South Africa,'' says former South African cricket captain Ali Bacher, who now heads a national program to teach cricket to children in black townships.
Bacher says there is massive untapped talent in the black townships: ``Once you get one black champion, that will be the catalyst and the floodgates will open.''
Bacher already has someone in mind. He is 15-year-old Andrew Masemola, already a legend in Alexandra township. ``I am confident that he can get to the top of South African cricket within five years,'' says Bacher.
Ironically, one of South Africa's best hopes in the Olympics is an American. Javelin thrower Tom Petranoff came to live in South Africa recently after being blacklisted by the United Nations for competing in South Africa in violation of the international sports boycott. Petranoff, whose best throw in South Africa is one meter short of the world record, has applied for South African citizenship and could still make the national team if immigration formalities are waived.
The surprise could be soccer. Given the long period of isolation (see accompanying chronology), South Africa's ability in team sports is difficult to judge.
``South Africa has been compared to Brazil when it comes to ball skills,'' says soccer midfielder Moosa. ``With our style of football - well, I wouldn't say we would win - but whatever happens we will make an impression. We have some talented players and many of them will get noticed.''
IT was Afro-Asian protests that persuaded the IOC to withdraw an invitation to South Africa to attend the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968 - after limited relaxation of apartheid in sport. On March 10 this year, at a meeting of the African National Olympic Committee in Botswana, it was again the African lobby that took the lead - this time by recognizing the interim National Olympic Committee of South Africa (NOCSA), thus paving the way for a return to the Olympic fold.
SOUTH AFRICA'S impact on world sport is likely to be greatest in track and field events, where half-a-dozen or so black marathon runners are among the best in the world.
Track is fairly evenly divided between black and white.
Marcel Winkler, a mixed-race 19-year-old student at the predominantly Afrikaans Pretoria University, was the fastest women's junior (under 19) in the world in the 100-meter dash last year, with a time of 11.16 seconds. Her time has been bettered only by 26-year-old Evette de Klerk, a white Olympic hopeful, who notched her best time of 11.06 seconds in a race with Marcel last year, giving her sixth place in world rankings.
Marcel, who is recovering from a leg injury is excited about the prospect of running in the Olympics. ``I'm already starting to build myself up,'' she says. ``My dream is to run in the Olympics and win a medal for South Africa.''
The prospect of returning to international sport has created waves of excitement among South African athletes and coaches, but some are wary about setting their expectations too high.
``The politicians are dangling a carrot to get what they want, but I am not convinced,'' says track and field coach John Short, who trains Marcel Winkler and other Olympic hopefuls.
Mr. Short, for one, does not believe that the anti-apartheid lobby is about to abandon its war cry: ``No normal sport in an abnormal society.''
``We will not be back in international sport until there is majority rule in South Africa,'' he says.