SOUTH Africa hosts the month-long Rugby World Cup starting May 25, sealing this nation's return to world competition. The Cup is the largest international event since South Africa's return from apartheid isolation three years ago.
It is an emotional event for millions of mainly white fans for whom rugby is not just a sport but part of a way of life. It is a remunerative event for the tourist industry, which hopes that thousands of foreign fans will pour into the country and fill coffers.
Cup organizers, eager to join in the spirit of the country's year-old democracy, say the event proves that South Africa can regain its past glory as one of the world's premier sporting nations and host a major competition. They see the World Cup as a crucial chance to popularize the traditionally white elitist game beyond racial lines and make it a truly South African sport.
''Rugby ... lies close to the soul of many South Africans,'' says Edward Griffiths, general manager of the South African Rugby Football Union. ''But we don't just view the World Cup as the final seal of international approval. We also hope this will serve as a springboard for rugby to be more popular with and more representative of all South Africa. We ... must address the perception of rugby as a whites-only sport.''
That may be difficult, as the 5-to-1 black majority was excluded for decades from cricket and rugby under apartheid. The fact that South Africa's only non-white national rugby star, Chester Williams, withdrew from the World Cup at the last minute because of injury does not help the multiracial cause -- nor does the fact that most South Africans cannot afford or obtain tickets (half are being sold to overseas fans).
Organizers are mindful of Sport Minister Steve Tshwete's emphasis on developing economically disadvantaged players, and are making up to 1,200 free tickets per game available to people from underprivileged areas. Some of the profits will go to local development programs. Organizers hope the event, by virtue of its size and publicity, will increase the popularity of the sport, the way soccer's following improved in the United States when it hosted the World Cup soccer championship last summer.
Before decades of apartheid-induced isolation, South Africa was among the world's best in a variety of sports -- especially rugby. And it is rugby that has been the most successful since the nation's return to the international arena in 1992.
''The team has had a clear improvement over the past three years. We have a massive task but we have stood up in good stead,'' Griffiths says. ''Our biggest challenge will probably be Australia, but we have a good chance.''
South African athletes have not lived up to everyone's expectations. In their return to international competition, athletes have fallen well short of the world records they held before being expelled for the ruling party's racist policies. Isolation meant an ignorance of new techniques and competitors' strengths.
''Given South Africa's standing before isolation, such as consistent Olympic medals, they've been fairly disappointing,'' says leading South African sports commentator Mark Gleeson. ''The technology and development -- training, diet, professionalism -- all left them behind.''
Rugby ''is probably the only sport in which South Africa can be the champion,'' Gleeson says. ''It's taken them three years to ... catch up with what Australia and New Zealand have been doing over the past decade.''
One reason rugby found it easier to recover than other sports is that there are only about eight major rugby-playing nations in the world.
It's different for other sports, although South Africa is slowly regaining its place as a dominant cricket-playing country and it ranks among the world's top eight tennis-playing nations.
South African soccer had a shaky start when it returned to international play, partially because it was competing against a wide field of 150 teams in the world's most popular sport. But last year soccer's international governing body ranked South Africa's national team as the third-most improved team worldwide.
Commentators say South Africa has the potential -- given its infrastructure and the deterioration of soccer squads in the rest of Africa because of political instability and social degradation -- to dominate soccer on the continent in the next 5 to 10 years.
MORE disappointing is track and field. South Africa produced some outstanding unofficial records during apartheid, and it was widely thought its athletes would have little difficulty on the international stage. But these athletes have largely proved unable to hold up to the pressure of international meets. At the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, its first Olympics in three decades, South Africa's best hope for a gold medal, Elana Meyer, was beaten by an unknown Ethiopian in the women's 10,000-meter race. In the last world championship in Stuttgart, Germany, Meyer dropped out halfway through the race. She was a leading contender in the last Boston Marathon but came in second.
With South Africa's bid to hold the 2004 Olympics in Cape Town endangered by infighting among organizers, the Rugby World Cup carries that much more significance for sports fans.
''It's gonna be tough losing,'' says Morne du Plessis, a leading figure in South African rugby in the 1970s who is the team manager for the World Cup tournament.
''Expectations are intense,'' Du Plessis said in a recent newspaper interview. ''But there is the possibility that we can win, and that's what drives us.''