In the sleepy West Country of England last Wednesday a game of rugby was played that could have a profound effect on the Moscow Olympics. The momentous afternoon began quietly. So quietly, indeed, that the game's prelude could have been scripted by the British Tourist Authority: an ancient Devon town, its cathedral on the hill, a helmeted bobby on duty and a little old lady offering, in a soft, strawberries-and-cream burr, to bring him a cup of tea.
Except that he was only one of 400 bobbies, that is to say, cops, who were blocking off the side streets that led to Exeter's County Ground, a tiny stadium that serves as a greyhound track, a motorcycle speedway and a rugby field. "My giddy aunt!" the old lady marveled.
Down the road, marching raggedly to brave tunes played on an accordion, a motley procession was approaching—kids mainly, a scattering of adults. They were rather fewer in number than the massed police, and the message they had come to convey was clear on the placards that many of them carried. They showed a cop in paramilitary uniform, his club raised high to beat down on fleeing black heads, IF YOU COULD SEE THEIR NATIONAL SPORT, the caption read, YOU MIGHT BE LESS KEEN TO SEE THEIR RUGBY.
The Devon County constabulary tightened its ranks. The old lady scuttled back into her house. But the demonstrators seemed unlikely to spoil Exeter's weekday peace. And it looked more unlikely that they had any chance of preventing the game between the Devon County side and the South African Barbarians.
October 14, 1979
It had all been very different in October 1969, the last time a South African rugby team—an all-white national team called the Springboks—had come to Britain. All hell had broken loose then. Opponents of apartheid, led by a 19-year-old expatriate white South African named Peter Hain, organized violent disruption of the games. Just as violently, Hain's demonstrators were met head on by rugby fans who regarded a visit by the powerful and much acclaimed Springboks as a great sports occasion that they would not be denied.
In one of the first '69 games—at Swansea, Wales—the protesters invaded the field and were confronted by arm-banded "stewards," vigilantes recruited from among the burly players of neighborhood clubs. It was a bloody scene. Many of the demonstrators were brutally manhandled; some were thrown bodily over a fence back into the crowd so that the fans could deal with them. The police had been taken by surprise by the scale of the rioting. Later, they would employ massive numbers, including dog handlers, to keep the factions apart as the tour limped on to its conclusion. But it had become a misery. Play was constantly stopped by protesters who ran onto the field. The hallowed turf of Twickenham, world headquarters of rugby, was violated by smoke bombs. The mighty Springboks—a magnificent side at the start of the tour—began to lose games to inconsiderable opposition.
Any referee would have given the protesters a narrow win on points, and the following summer the British anti-apartheid movement scored a K.O. when it prevented a visit by the South African national cricket team. By 1977, the movement's victory seemed complete when the British Commonwealth heads of state signed the Gleneagles Agreement, committing member countries to discourage all sporting ties with South Africa.
Long before that, in 1970, South Africa had become the first country to suffer expulsion from the Olympics. But in many ways that was a less bitter moment for the South African sports fan than the cutting of international rugby ties. For the volk, the Dutch-descended Afrikaners, rugby is more than a national game. It is a religion. The green-and-gold-shirt-ed figure of a Springbok forward thundering down the field at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria is as much a national symbol as the leaping antelope, the springbok, itself.
Clearly, an all-white South African rugby team would stand no chance of making a foreign tour, and until the ponderous concept of the Barbarians came to light, that seemed to be that. But the South African government claims that apartheid in sport has been eroding fast since the turbulent early '70s. New rules were enacted allowing black and white teams to play against one another. Multinational sport, as the South Africans call it, was becoming a reality. And that was enough to convince the somewhat naive administrators of British rugby that a fresh start could be made.
The Barbarians who would be coming to England would be a perfect balance: eight white players, eight black and eight colored (the South African designation for those of racially mixed descent). Players of different races would actually share hotel rooms and eat at the same table on tour.
Despite the Barbarians' specially tailored composition, Ireland, where the team also had hoped to play, refused it entry. The British government, however, ruled that it had no power to stop the tour. It looked as if it would be 1969 all over again.
There were even comic overtones. One tactic of the protesters, it was rumored, would be to disrupt play by releasing rabbits onto the field. "If they do that," said John Lawrence, a member of the British Rugby Union Tours Committee, "we shall release ferrets." Joking aside, Hain, now chairman of the Stop All Racial Tours organization, declared, "We intend the maximum possible disruption to the tour. We will be there from the moment they arrive at the airport, on the coach journeys, at the matches...all the signs are that we are in for an action replay of the 1969 tour."
However, when the Barbarians deplaned last week, no serious demonstration took place at Heathrow Airport. But then the visitors' bus mysteriously caught fire, and the anti-apartheid campaign appeared to have started. No, a mechanic said. A cam rod had snapped, and hot oil had spurted onto the engine.
And so to the first game at Exeter. "Exeter?" a rugby buff might legitimately have asked. The city is far from the heartland of the sport. The locals prefer soccer, and the stand at the County Ground holds a mere 1,500. The Rugby Union might have had its reasons, though. The somewhat sleepy county of Devon is not known for its passionate political convictions. Further, the only approaches to the County Ground were by way of small streets of old row houses that are easy to block and control.
In any case, the procession of three to four hundred that appeared an hour before the game seemed to be no storming party. Ten years earlier, in Dublin, 10,000 protesters showed up at a match against the Springboks and the game had to be held behind barbed wire. Now there was little more than decorous chanting and singing. The demonstrators had the look of local people. One boy said, "My dad's come to watch the game, and I'm here to demonstrate." No rent-a-crowd toughies from London, no hardened activists. A girl was horrified at the suggestion she might go in to see the match: "It wouldn't be right. And I'm not insured."
That is not precisely the stuff martyrs are made of, but finally, 10 minutes into the game, the spirit of '69 evinced itself. The little field was lined with cops, one every 10 feet or so, facing away from the game, into the crowd. But suddenly a banner was waving and nine demonstrators, led by a girl, were running onto the field.
They stood no chance. The crowd howled at them. "Stamp on the bastards!" a voice screamed. In no more than two minutes, all of the demonstrators had been dragged off, passively inert, by the police to waiting paddy wagons. The police called up reinforcements, plainly expecting a second wave. It never came. Meanwhile, in a dull drizzle, the Barbarians won the match 27-18. The only revelation of the afternoon was that the South Africans had a fine colored fly-half—roughly equivalent to a quarterback on a football team—named Errol Tobias. And also—maybe—that the anti-apartheid movement in Britain had lost its impetus.
Not really. Next day, at the small hotel he owns near London's Marble Arch, Chris de Broglio, a 49-year-old former South African weight-lifting champion, brushed aside the fact that the Exeter demonstration had been so feeble. He is secretary of SANROC, the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee, an organization that was forced to move from Johannesburg to London in 1966.
De Broglio, a white, has very much bigger fish to fry than disrupting games in the West Country, and he had important news. This week, he declared, SANROC's black chairman, Sam Ramsamy, will fly to Yaoundè, in Cameroon, to meet with Jean Claude Ganga, the powerful secretary-general of the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa.
"We are going to teach the British a lesson," de Broglio said. SANROC's first proposal will be that all African countries, and as many third world nations as can be mustered, should break off sporting relations with Britain; no athletes from the protesting countries would go to Britain, and no British athletes would be permitted to compete in those countries. Moreover, all African delegates to international sports bodies will be instructed to block the election of British officials. And all the participating countries will be asked to ensure that there will be no contracts for British coaches in their sphere of influence, an action aimed mainly at the Persian Gulf states that employ a number of soccer coaches.
Next, the protesters will work to suspend Britain from the Commonwealth Games. And finally they will try to prevent Britain from taking part in the Moscow Olympics. "The Africans are very determined over this," said de Broglio. "The British can have the Barbarians if they like. The Olympics will be something else."
He outlined the scenario. "Africa will mobilize the new Asian sports confederation. Some Latin American countries have promised to help. Some of the socialist countries, the East Europeans. The question will come up in an IOC meeting early next year at Lake Placid. Let us assume that the IOC refuses to make a decision. Rugby is not an Olympic sport, Britain has not broken any Olympic rules, et cetera.
"In that case, 40 countries go to Moscow and say, 'We stay here, Britain goes. This time, Africans will not punish themselves, as in Montreal. You cannot have the Olympics with Britain.' I think that the IOC will then make a pragmatic decision, as it did in the case of Taiwan. Or maybe Los Angeles should start cutting its losses now. There could be no Olympics in 1984."
Britain is very excited about the Moscow Games—what with world-record holder Sebastian Coe in the 800 meters and Steve Ovett in the 1,500—and de Broglio says it has a last chance to ensure that these athletes will run. A rugby tour of South Africa by the British Lions, the national side, has been scheduled for 1980. "If that is canceled," de Broglio declared, "then Africans may not proceed in the matter of the Barbarians' tour. But they are very angry with British sports administrators, who have been the main obstacle to African wishes on the South African sports question."
In light of all that, one could understand his lack of concern over the poor show at Exeter. Has stopping the Barbarians become a minor objective, and Ramsamy's trip the big assault?
"You've got it," said de Broglio.