When SPORTS ILLUSTRATED first began visiting Africa 12 years ago, safaris and simian chest thumpings provided our principal material. It was not until 1963 that we went to Africa to cover a major event in a major sport. That time Jack Olsen returned from Ibadan, Nigeria with a high-spirited account of the middleweight championship fight between Dick Tiger and Gene Fullmer. Olsen also brought back tales of wild airplane rides and a slight case of African fever.
Subsequent trips have been more routine, less feverish. Right now, for example, Senior Editor Ray Cave is making a comprehensive tour of African sports facilities with an eye to future stories. And in this issue, John Underwood—who earlier, in 1965, interviewed Olympic Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila at home in Ethiopia—reports on his recent visit with Gary Player in South Africa.
Underwood is well suited to an examination of a controversial country like South Africa and an intense, dedicated man like Gary Player. John is a Southerner, born and brought up in Florida, and though he is a modernist in most things he is gently but outspokenly aligned with the older virtues. As such, he understands and respects Player, whose little homilies on fitness and Godliness are sometimes misinterpreted. Player's belief in Success through Hard Work was especially appreciated by Underwood after he saw Player's home courses. Though beautifully kept, the golf courses around Johannesburg have their own Calvinist bent. The path to the green is narrow, if not necessarily straight, and the rough runs to poisonous snakes (none of them proffering apples) and vegetation with a will of its own.
South Africans were eager to talk about South Africa and to hear a visiting American's opinions of it. But to Underwood an air of unreality prevailed—in the country's beauty, in the extreme friendliness of natives both black and white, in the charming, somewhat antique style of living, even in the chatter of disc jockeys, who tell jokes twice—once in Afrikaans and once in English—and laugh both times. "I felt a tremendous undercurrent of vitality," Underwood says, "but also a mood of impermanence, especially in the cities, where locks and guards are everywhere."
May 22, 1966
Meanwhile, north of the Limpopo, Ray Cave echoed another Underwood impression: "Wherever I've been in Africa I've sensed a great feeling for sport." Uganda has "a stadium complex that will rival any small American city." Kaduna, Nigeria boasts a stadium seating 49,000. Sports Minister W. T. Marbell of post-Nkrumah Ghana flew to Togo to arrange a soccer game the very week that the long-closed border between the countries was reopened. "When ambassadors meet," Marbell said, "only ambassadors know. When soccer teams meet, the people know."
"There is an immense faith in athletics as an instrument of expression." says Underwood, and Cave agrees. Rest assured, that instrument of expression will bring SPORTS ILLUSTRATED back to Africa again and again.