Storm brewing over South African Rugby team's US tour
International pressure is mounting against American Rugby officials to cancel a tour of three cities next month by the famous Springbok team of South Africa. At stake in the effort:
* The 1984 Olympic Games, scheduled to be held in Los angeles.
* The possible future eligibility of amateur American athletes in international competition.
* The possible cutoff of oil exports to the United States by Nigeria, its No. 2 supplier (after Saudi Arabia).
The Springboks, the ranking Rugby power in the world, currently are touring New Zealand. But that visit has produced so many heated and occasionally violent antiapartheid demonstrations that Prime Minister Robert Muldoon threatened to call an early general election unless talks involving protesters, police, and Rugby officials resulted in an agreement on its future. Mr. Muldoon proposed that the tour be cut short in exchange for a guarantee that future antiapartheid demonstrations be nonviolent.
The South African team, which includes one colored (mixed race) player and a Colored assistant coach but no blacks, is scheduled to play exhibitions in Chicago Sept. 19, in Albany, N.Y. Sept. 22, and in New York City Sept. 26. Rugby is not a popular spectator sport in the US, and it is hoped by tour organizers that the appearance of the Springboks will give a boost to its status here.
But such a boost could be costly to the US. There have been warnings that black African states could lead a boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics if the Springbok tour takes place. The 1976 Olympics in Montreal were boycotted by the black Africans because a New Zealand team was not "disinvited" for traveling to South Africa for a series of exhibitions against the Springboks, although Rugby is not an Olympic event.
At the request of the International Olympic Committee, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, the US Olympic Committee (USOC) has interceded in the matter, USOC executive director F. Don Miller said tour organizer Tom Selfridge, an Albany, N.Y., industrial valve company official and president of the Eastern Rugby Union , has been asked to "reconsider his invitation to the South Africans."
Colonel Miller termed the Springbok tour "counterproductive" to the Olympic effort and said the USOC intends to hold further discussions with the US Rugby Union, parent body of the Selfridge group. He expressed some optimism that the tour could be forestalled.
In part because of the forthcoming tour, a senior adviser to Nigerian President ShehuShagari last month warned that his country "shall, when necessary , use economic measures to persuade the United States to understand our position with a view to stopping it being so patently anti-African." The economic measures, he said, included, the so- called oil weapon. Nigeria last year sold the US $10.95 billion worth of light crude oil. To counter suggestions that his country's economy was not strong enough to use oil sales as a political weapon, he said: "That is naive. A temporary situation should not be considered a permanent situation."
The adviser added that another fitting penalty for the US would be the barring of its athletes from international competition if the Rugby tour was allowed to proceed.
Nevertheless, Mr. Selfridge insists "the games will come off -- regardless." He points to the fact that eight other South African Rugby teams have come to the US so far this year for games with American teams, and few persons -- if any -- have protested.
The Springbok tour, he says, "wasn't even an issue until the political people came into it. If the African countries want to boycott [the Olympics], that is their decision, and it's not on the shoulders of the Rugby community, which has always been nonpolitical."
Antiapartheid protesters, he adds, should take their complaints to Washington or Pretoria, the South African capital, and allow the athletes to play their games in Chicago, Albany, and New York City.
Protesters, however, may greet the South Africans nearly every step of the way once they arrive in the US. Frank Watkins, a spokesman for Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) in Chicago said dryly: "They will be greeted very warmly; we do not intend for them to play in Chicago." But he declined to reveal details of his group's planned protest.
In New York, Richard Lapchick of the American Coordinating Committee for Equality in Sports and Society said his coalition of civil-rights, religious, political, and sports groups intends to lead a protest march through Manhattan one month before the Springboks appear there and to organize "a day of national demonstrations" at the game. Sept. 26 is a Saturday, and the New York game is scheduled to be played at Randalls Island stadium, which Mr. Lapchick noted is only a few blocks from Harlem. He predicted "the largest antiapartheid demonstration in this country's history," with protesters out- numbering fans by "10 to 1."
Moves also are planned in New York City Council to try to force Mayor Edward I. Koch to deny the use of the publicly owned Randalls Island facility for the exhibition.
"It's hard to imagine what could be more harmful to American Rugby than to bring a team over here from the one country whose racial policies are the most offensive in the world," Lapchick said.