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South Africa's Olympic Hopes

Runner Elana Meyer may bring home a medal - and redemption for her country's athletes

SOUTH Africa's waning Olympic hopes will be pinned on diminutive distance runner Elana Meyer when the country's athletes return to the international fold next week after three decades of pariah status over apartheid.

Like Zola Budd Pieterse, the barefooted teenage runner who paved the way for South Africa's return to international athletics by using a British passport of convenience in the mid-1980s, Meyer hopes to bring back a medal for her country in the 10,000-meter event.

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The political controversy, which has kept the country's athletes in suspense about whether or not they would compete in Barcelona, Spain, will follow them into the Olympic stadium.

The breakdown in negotiations and the massacre of 42 black South Africans at Boipatong on June 17 led to a bid by the African National Congress (ANC) to reimpose an international boycott, which would have prevented South African participation in the Olympic Games. Track suits with doves

The threat was later withdrawn but the compromise deal requires all 97 South African athletes - there are seven blacks among the 22 competitors for track events - to wear a white-dove emblem on their track suits during the opening ceremony to indicate their commitment to peace and democracy. ANC President Nelson Mandela will attend the opening ceremony in his official capacity.

Sports teams touring South Africa are now required to visit the Boipatong massacre site before they play. The visiting Cameroon soccer team, which drew capacity crowds at Soweto's city stadium on a recent weekend, was the first team to perform this ritual. They were joined by the predominantly black South African team.

Pre-Olympic races at London's Crystal Palace on July 10 indicate that South Africa's athletes, denied international competition for more than three decades, are out of their depth.

Budd Pieterse, who is South Africa's hope in the 3,000-meter race in Barcelona, retired from the 2,000 meters at Crystal Palace in sixth place, apparently suffering from cramps, after anti-apartheid demonstrators ran onto the field.

In the 1984 Olympics, Budd Pieterse failed to win a medal in the 5,000-meter event when she and American Mary Decker Slaney collided. Slaney tripped and fell; Budd Pieterse finished well behind the leaders. (In a rematch at Crystal Palace several months later, Decker convincingly beat Budd Pieterse.)

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Meyer and Budd Pieterse's careers have intertwined. They are the same age (25), have shared the same coach, have both made it to the Olympics in middle-distance races, and come from similar Dutch-descended Afrikaner backgrounds.

They both have their sights set on the 10,000-meter race in the 1996 Olympics.

Meyer, who ran the world's fastest times in 1991 for both the 3,000 and 5,000 meters, as well as the world record for the 15-kilometer race, has opted for the 10,000-meter race in Barcelona. Her best time for the 3,000 meters (8 mins., 32 secs.) was set in a contest with Budd Pieterse in April of last year. It was the first time Meyer had beaten the legendary Budd Pieterse, and it marked a turning point in her career.

This March, Meyer bettered - by nearly four seconds - Budd Pieterse's seven-year-old world record for the 5,000 meters. Ironically, it was the April 1991 loss to Meyer in the 3,000-meter race that persuaded Budd Pieterse to return to international competition after four years in the cold.

"I've only got a couple of years to accomplish what I want to in the 3,000 meters, because then I want to start a family," she said in a recent interview with South African Sports Illustrated. "After that I will switch to 10,000 meters, which will probably be my best distance, and eventually the marathon."

Meyer, who says she values the competition with Budd Pieterse, looks forward to world competition. "For the last eight years, there was Zola Budd always ahead of me," Meyer said at a news conference here. "I tried to improve my times. Zola and I know each other very well ... we are friends, and I think she will do very well."

Meyer's challenge now is to best world favorite 10,000-meter runner Liz McColgan of Scotland. Meyer opted for the 10,000 meters because she believes that - deprived of international competition to refine her tactics - she has a better chance over the longer distance. New hope of a nation

As early as January 1984, Meyer ran against Budd Pieterse in the 5,000 meters. Budd Pieterse lapped her and set a world best before going on to the finals of the 1984 Olympics. Now it is Meyer who embodies the hope of a nation as she prepares for the 10,000-meter race in the Olympics. Meyer has run the 10,000 meters competitively on only three occasions. Last December, she achieved a time of 31 mins., 33.46 secs., compared with McColgan's best time of 30 mins., 57.07 secs.

But South Africa's return to the Olympics is more than a quest for national prowess. It is the symbol of South Africa's return to the community of nations, after the decades of apartheid that drove the country into international isolation.

Although only 7 of South Africa's 22 track and field athletes are black, the team is still the most racially representative South African team ever to take part in an Olympics.

Meyer already felt some of the emotional energy released by racial unity when she ran in the African Unity Games in Dakar, Senegal, in April - one of the conditions for South Africa's return to the Olympics.

As she entered the last lap of the 3,000 meters in Dakar, the black crowd rose as one to give the fleet-footed white South African a rousing ovation. "The crowd down the back straight were unbelievable," said Meyer later. "They were so loud I couldn't hear Michael [her husband] shouting out my lap times. I was running by feel."

Like Budd Pieterse, who learned by bitter personal experience, Meyer has transcended her upbringing to see the error of apartheid. "It was always wrong not to have equal opportunity," Meyer said recently: "Not from a political point of view, but from a Christian point of view. It was very bad to see great athletes not having a chance to take part internationally."

It was Budd Pieterse who bore the brunt of the world's ire over apartheid as a naive teenager who was raised on a farm in South Africa's conservative rural heartland. Now she regrets ever having gone to Britain in order to compete in the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984.

She was ill-equipped to handle the stresses of international competition, let alone the shock of becoming the world's lightning rod for apartheid. She returned to South Africa in 1988 - unhappy, mentally exhausted, and nursing a persistent injury. Today, she has found inner happiness.

"My marriage has changed my whole approach to life," Budd Pieterse told South African Sports Illustrated recently. "The most significant thing has been the realization that I can still be happy without running."

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