The whistle blast that may yet be heard around the world sounded at 9:15 C.D.T. last Saturday morning and was heard by no more than 300 Americans, all middle-class white folk, most of them young, some with babies in strollers. They had assembled to watch a game of rugby on the outskirts of Racine, a town of 71,000 set in the pastoral, milder-than-milk country of southern Wisconsin. It would be hard to imagine a less threatening way to start a fall weekend.
Note the date well, though: September 19, 1981. There are many months to go before the 1984 Olympics, but, as those Games approach, millions of Americans who know little of Racine or rugby may have cause to regret what took place that bright, chilly Wisconsin morning. Indeed, they may come to think of September 19, 1981 with a sharp dismay that not even the flawed Moscow Olympics of 1980 engendered. For this was the day a small group of their countrymen, combining a simple lack of sophistication with a kind of petulant obstinacy, at the very least put the Los Angeles Games in jeopardy and at worst crippled forever the Olympic movement.
And it all happened in such a bumbling, amateurish sort of way. When the referee blew his whistle to set the match and its possible consequences in motion, he was a quarter of an hour behind schedule, which is not uncommon in the happy-go-lucky world of U.S. rugby. As the home team, a representative side culled from midwestern clubs, kicked off, only the somewhat unusual hour of the start seemed anything but normal.
Things were far from normal, however, because the visiting side, 15 strapping young men wearing green and gold uniforms with an emblem of a leaping gazelle on their breasts, was the Springboks, the national rugby team of South Africa, inevitably a symbol of the apartheid policies of their nation. They had just completed two bitter, violence-racked months of playing in New Zealand. A week earlier, in Auckland, their final game had ended in a wild battle between police and a 6,000-strong mob hurling gasoline bombs from behind barbed-wire barricades, while a protester-piloted Cessna screamed into Eden Park stadium at goalpost height. Now the Springboks, whose mere presence had enraged placid, sheep-may-safely-graze New Zealand, were in Racine at the invitation of the U.S. Rugby Union.
September 27, 1981
In Auckland, 49,000 people had watched the Springboks. In Racine, they were playing in front of those 300 in a bleacherless meadow called Roosevelt Park, flanked on one side by a National Guard armory with tanks and artillery on display, and on the other by a building that had the look of a clubhouse. It was the Dr. John Bryant Center, which serves the local black community. In a piece of crassness equaled only by their original invitation, the administrators of American rugby had chosen a predominantly black section of Racine for the Springboks' debut.
Before Saturday's match, it seemed that the only game the South Africans might get to play in the U.S. would be Space Invaders, in some dark saloon. One by one, officials in the cities where the Springboks had planned to play—New York and Rochester, Chicago and Albany, N.Y.—had decided not to sanction the matches, thus pacifying protesters of South Africa's racial policies.
In Chicago, where their first game was to have been held in public at the Polo Grounds in suburban Oakbrook, they stayed at the Chicago Athletic Club on Michigan Avenue. Outside the CAC, a small band of picketers did duty on the sidewalk. In a way the anti-apartheid groups had won a small victory by keeping the game out of the city. The real triumph, of course, would have been to prevent the game against the so-called Midwest XV from being held at all. As a clear consequence of this, the tour organizers were humiliated into laying some cloak-and-dagger plans for a private game to be played at a secret venue.
At this point, deeply serious as the issues involved were, an element of farce crept into the proceedings. It was as if John Le Carre was collaborating on the subterfuge with the Marx Brothers. The spokesman for U.S. rugby, Edmund Lee, declared that he wouldn't be saying how, where or when the game against the Midwest XV would be played. At the CAC there were more TV vans than protesters staked out, and on Friday night they had a long cold vigil. Then, at midnight, some members of the media received a phone call: Proceed early in the morning to the junction of 94 and Route 50 at Kenosha, Wis. Look for a battered pale green '54 Olds in the parking lot of the Howard Johnson's there. Then check for further instructions.
And there in Kenosha, manning the green Olds—Checkpoint Charlie, as it became known—was a bunch of conspiratorial kids in the jerseys of the Racine Rugby Football Club. Their looks were stern, but it was clear that they were bubbling with fun. And just as obvious was the fact that they had little idea of the extent to which they were being betrayed by their elders in the sport.
It is very hard for an outsider to understand the special bonds that hold the rugby world together. Rugby is a close brotherhood based almost everywhere on a genuine amateur ideal. It is a beautiful flowing game at its best, in which you buy your own shoes and, after the contest, a beer for the man who clobbered you in the scrimmage. It is an international sport, and it prides itself on the fact that a player from, say, the Manhattan Blues can walk into a clubhouse in Cardiff, Wales, or Toulouse, France, or, indeed, Johannesburg, South Africa, and be welcomed warmly.
The obverse of this, unhappily, can be a laager mentality as profound as that of the Broederbond in South Africa, one that breeds unreasoning loyalty and, as in the case of the men who invited the Springboks to tour the U.S., a perverse refusal to face reality. "The Springboks are just sportsmen who want to play against us," they claim. In the U.S., where the game, though not young, is less developed than it is overseas, it's possible that such a naive concept might be believed, particularly by those kids from the Racine Rugby Club who were having fun out at Checkpoint Charlie.
It is unlikely that those kids have paid attention to the kind of financial inducements the South Africans are willing to put out to rejoin, in whatever way, the world of international sport—for instance, the $111,000 apiece recently offered to English cricketers to play a six-week season in South Africa. They may not even be aware of the somewhat derisory $25,000 handed to the Eastern Rugby Union in the U.S. by Louis Luyt, a Johannesburg millionaire. Luyt was an instrumental figure in a covert South African government propaganda campaign in the late 1970s that, when its details became known, forced Prime Minister John Vorster from office. But their elders—the presidents and the like of rugby organizations—must know of these things.
When the invitation to tour the U.S. was extended, those same elders must, indisputably, also have been aware of the possible consequences—which may appear much sooner than they think, possibly at the open meeting of the Olympic Congress this week in Baden-Baden, West Germany. John Rodda, a highly respected English journalist, wrote last week in the eminently unsensational Manchester Guardian: "Ever since Misha the Bear danced across Lenin Stadium and the Olympic flame died to close the games of the 23rd Olympiad, the Russians have been waiting to make a hawkish move against Los Angeles. Not for them...a boycott...Moscow just wants the Games removed from Los Angeles, and yesterday the plane which brought the beaten Springboks from Auckland to the United States was just the peg they needed." Rodda also reported that at the recent World Cup track and field meet in Rome, Juan Antonio Samaranch, the International Olympic Committee's president, who was once Spain's ambassador to Moscow, had gone out of his way to say how displeased he was that the U.S. rugby authorities had chosen to jeopardize the L.A. Games.
At Roosevelt Park in Racine, whence the few hundred spectators found their way via Checkpoint Charlie, there was nothing but jubilation among the men who rule U.S. rugby, even though the Midwest side went down to the Springboks 46-12. The farce continued to the end, as the TV camera crews arrived late and the protesters even later. A small handful of them rushed onto the field near the end of the game, and two were arrested, but the main body, bused out from Chicago, found only an empty field, the deed done.
Moments before the end, Nelie Smith, the South African coach who had been stone-faced and silent for long enough, permitted himself a smile. "We're nearly home and dry, eh?" he murmured to an American official.
And indeed, back in Pretoria, they will be chalking up another—political—victory on the road. What damage has been done to U.S.—and international—sport remains to be seen.