To judge by his smashing deeds of the past year, University of Alabama swimmer Jonty Skinner should be among the favorites in the 100-meter freestyle at this summer's Olympics, just as he will be in the 100 at this week's NCAA meet at Brown University. But collegiate rivals like Jim Montgomery of Indiana and Joe Bottom of USC are not even expecting to see Jonty at Montreal because the slim, 6'5" Skinner is a man without a country to swim for. He is a citizen of South Africa, a nation that has been barred from the Games because of its white-supremacist policies. And there the matter might rest but for an improbable dream nurtured by Skinner and a band of Alabama boosters that he will be able to compete in Montreal as a U.S. citizen.
The very idea of that happening is audacious. U.S. naturalization law normally requires a prospective citizen to spend five years in the country as an immigrant, yet Skinner arrived in the U.S. just two years ago and did so as a foreign student rather than as an immigrant. Still, his Olympic predicament has become a cause cél√®bre in Tuscaloosa. The university's Student Senate recently passed a resolution supporting citizenship for Skinner, local merchants have put LET JONTY SWIM placards in their stores and petitions bearing 50,000 signatures are on their way to Washington. Recognizing a groundswell when he sees one, Rep. Walter Flowers (D., Ala.) introduced a bill—HR 12257—in Congress this month that would enable Jonty to become a citizen in time for the U.S. Olympic Trials in June.
It is astonishing that Skinner, who recognizes that the bill's chances of passing are slim, can even dream on an Olympian scale. Growing up in the seaside South African city of East London, the outgoing Skinner picked up the nickname Jonty—he is actually John Alexander—when reporters covering his early swimming victories invariably described him as "jaunty." But he was a sprinter of largely local reputation and it was only after he logged his required year in the South African defense force—and after he had his fill of surfing—that Coach Don Gambril recruited him by mail for the team he was building at Alabama.
Arriving in Tuscaloosa at the age of 20, Skinner suddenly caught fire. As a freshman at last year's NCAA championships he won the 100-yard free-style in an American record of 43.92. Then at the AAU outdoor championships he blazed to a 51.05 in the 100 meters, and only world-record holder (at 50.59) Montgomery has ever bettered that time.
March 29, 1976
As Skinner improved, the first talk of possible U.S. citizenship was heard. In the mistaken belief that it would help, a Tuscaloosa couple briefly explored the possibility of adopting Skinner, and several women he scarcely knew—including one Alabama faculty member—half seriously offered to marry him.
Sensitive to the possibility that his bid for U.S. citizenship might appear opportunistic, Skinner insists he is merely trying to expedite something he would have gone after anyway. "I realized soon after I came to the United States that I'd like to be a citizen," he says. "This is a beautiful country and it's freer and more democratic than South Africa."
Making it more beautiful for Skinner is Pat Liang, a University of Georgia coed he met last year at a swim meet. She is Chinese-American, and Skinner is only too aware that their relationship would be taboo in his homeland. "If Pat and I ever got married, we certainly couldn't live in South Africa," he says.
In his efforts to become a U.S. citizen, however, Skinner is up against the sobering fact that HR 12257, a so-called private bill, requires unanimous consent of the House. Last January, Congress unanimously enacted special legislation paving the way for Czech-born crosscountry skier Jana Hlavaty to compete for the U.S. in the Winter Olympics, but she was just a couple of months away from naturalization anyway. Taking such action for somebody on a student visa would be unprecedented, and some Congressmen might feel it would cheapen U.S. citizenship. Nor does it help that Gambril made some inquiries last summer to swimming officials of France and Great Britain about the possibility of Skinner competing for them.
Above all, granting hurry-up citizenship to a white South African would undoubtedly offend staunch U.S. foes of apartheid. Although Skinner could probably defuse this issue by repudiating his government, he thinks that would be improper. In addition, he explains, "My father works for a government-affiliated hospital, and if I say the wrong thing it could hurt him." The mere fact that Skinner was known to be contemplating U.S. citizenship—and had a Chinese-American girl friend—received front-page play in South Africa.
If the LET JONTY SWIM campaign fails, Skinner will simply have to concentrate on lesser meets, beginning with the NCAA. There are also the AAU championships in Philadelphia two weeks after the Olympics. "If I don't make it to Montreal, you can bet I'll be watching the 100-meter time there and trying to beat it in Philadelphia," he says. But Jonty Skinner is aware that there is no substitute for the Olympics. Wistfully he adds, "Of course, how I might swim in Philadelphia wouldn't prove anything. What counts is Montreal."