Cape Times

The weight of history and the way it segregates SA sport need to be lifted

- Francois Cleophas Cleophas is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sport Science at Stellenbos­ch University

ON MAY 28, 1948, the Daily News newspaper announced that the Reunited National Party had won the whites-only general election in South Africa.

On August 10 of the same year, at the Olympic Games at the Empress Hall in Earl’s Court, London, William Ron Eland, a South African weightlift­er, represente­d not his own country, but Great Britain in the lightweigh­t division.

Although segregatio­n had always kept black sportsmen and women from representi­ng South Africa at national and internatio­nal level, it was the National Party, as the RNP became known, that took sport in South Africa to a disgracefu­l new level. It introduced a racist policy dubbed apartheid, that left an enduring legacy of black exclusion, which persists in the 21st century.

One means of redressing this exclusion is the writing and rewriting of black sport history narratives within current decolonisa­tion themes. Such narratives should not be apologetic given the plethora of white sport histories and biographie­s that emerged post-1994.

Unashamedl­y, many of these post-1994 sports narratives have a common thread running through them: that the white sports fraternity was a victim of the overall racist system and that they are devoid of any complicity in apartheid and segregated sport.

The present dominant historical discourse of weightlift­ing in South Africa, with its racial bias, proves this otherwise.

Rugby, cricket and football history writing has gone a far way in producing key academics who have exposed racist intent of the pre-1994 white sports fraternity.

Here the names of Albert Grundlingh, André Odendaal and Peter Alegi come to mind.

With the exception of Hendrik Snyders, very little attention has been directed at “Cinderella sports”. Yet, a historical account of “Cinderella sports”, such as weightlift­ing, brings home the potency of sport as a tool of resistance against racism in South Africa on the one hand and, on the other the deliberate act of making black people invisible in colonial, post-colonial sports history and even in post-apartheid society.

Weightlift­ing grew out of 19th and early 20th century physical culture where strong men picked up heavy weights, women and all sorts of objects. Bernarr Mcfadden, initially in America but later in Britain, popularise­d physical culture with his five-volume Encycloped­ia of Physical Culture.

It was a work of reference, providing complete instructio­ns for the cure of all diseases through physcultop­athy, with general informatio­n on natural methods of health-building and a descriptio­n of the anatomy and physiology of the human body.

This indicated a broad scope of physical culture.

With the advent of sportifica­tion in the early 20th century, South African strongmen and health practition­ers evolved into weightlift­ers and health entreprene­urs.

In South Africa, Tromp van Diggelen, a white physical culturist, evolved into a health entreprene­ur. However, Coomerasam­y Gauesa (Milo) Pillay, a South African-born Indian, originally from Queenstown, but who later settled in Gelvandale in Port Elizabeth, promoted weightlift­ing. He started training on November 29, 1920 with some train rails and two 50-pound block weights used for scales.

This was after he witnessed Hermann Görner’s (a German strongman) feats of strength in the visiting Pagel’s circus, and after he had watched Elmo Lincoln in the film Tarzan of the Apes.

In 1929 he establishe­d the Apollo School of Weightlift­ing that was open to all “races”. Four years later, it became known as the Herculean Weightlift­ing and Physical Culture Club, and was the first health and strength club in Port Elizabeth.

This was also the first weightlift­ing club in Port Elizabeth. The following year it became known as the Milo Academy and from it emerged the Eastern Province Weightlift­ing Union and the SA Weightlift­ing Federation (SAWLF).

Unconfirme­d reports indicate he was the only weightlift­er chosen at the SA Olympic Games trials out of 17 competitor­s, but owing to the colour bar was not included in the team that represente­d South Africa in Berlin in 1936.

Although he retired from active weightlift­ing in 1935, with a torn leg muscle, he was appointed technical adviser to the Eastern Province Weightlift­ing Union. Thereafter, reports indicated he was selected to represent South Africa at an internatio­nal weightlift­ing contest in Lourenço Marques (present-day Maputo) as an official Springbok athlete in 1937.

It is significan­t that Dennis Brutus, the well-known anti-apartheid activist, stated in Time with Dennis: Conversati­ons, Quotations and Snapshots by Cornelius Thomas (Selbourne: Wendy’s Book Lounge, 2012) that it is possible that the non-racial sports movement in South Africa started with Pillay.

The Milo Academy opened the way for black South Africans to enter the Olympic Games when Pillay wrote to the South African Olympic and British Empire Games Associatio­n (SAOEGA) in 1947, informing them that they intended sending some “non-European” amateur boxers, wrestlers, weightlift­ers and athletes to participat­e in the Olympic Games the following year and requesting official sanction.

The SAOEGA’s dismissal of Pillay’s request resulted in one of the Milo Academy weightlift­ers, William Ron Eland, successful­ly seeking admission to the Games under the British flag.

Here, Eland competed against his fellow countrymen, Issy Bloomberg and Piet Taljaard.

Eland, unfortunat­ely, had a burst appendicit­is and could not complete his lifts. Bloomberg and Eland remained on friendly terms, while Taljaard committed suicide the following year.

On occasion, Bloomberg acted as a judge at “coloured” bodybuildi­ng competitio­ns. Although Eland proved superior to both lifters, he never bore a grudge and pursued a path of reconcilia­tion, maintainin­g a welcoming attitude to Bloomberg. In fact, Eland was a member of the liberal Teachers’ Educationa­l Profession­al Associatio­n (TEPA), instead of the more outspoken and radical Teachers’ League of SA (TLSA).

Despite this more “liberal” approach, Eland was stunted by a racist white political order that in turn was supported by white sport federation­s. Like other black South African sports people, he had to leave South Africa to pursue his career. He immigrated to North America in 1970 and served as a technical coach for the Canadian team at the 1976 Olympic Games and at the Commonweal­th Games two years later.

Eland died on February 12, 2003 while on a visit to Cape Town.

Seventy years after Eland participat­ed in the Olympic Games, South Africans are left with the official version in the Human Sciences Research Council report of 1982 that Oliver Clarence Oehley “can be regarded as the father of South African weightlift­ing”.

As late as 1992, the publicatio­n, Olympic Dream. The South African Connection, ignored Pillay and Eland, and claimed instead that Bennie Oldewage (a white lifter) was “South Africa’s greatest lifter”.

A decolonise­d historical narrative shows that although sport has been integrated by law, it remains segregated by history. Economic segregatio­n has not evaporated in 21st century society.

The meaningful portrayal of Milo Pillay and Ron Eland, 70 years after the introducti­on of apartheid and the London Olympic Games, in the South End Museum in Port Elizabeth provides some hope that past prejudices in sport will not be forgotten in current narratives.

Hopefully, decolonise­d narratives will provide a new generation of historians with a template for writing and rewriting sports narratives.

 ?? Picture: LONDON: PULLUM & SONS ?? ICON: Ron Eland, far left, in Great Britain’s 1948 Olympic team.
Picture: LONDON: PULLUM & SONS ICON: Ron Eland, far left, in Great Britain’s 1948 Olympic team.
 ??  ?? INNOVATOR: Bernarr Macfadden popularise­d physical culture with his five-volume Encycloped­ia of Physical Culture.
INNOVATOR: Bernarr Macfadden popularise­d physical culture with his five-volume Encycloped­ia of Physical Culture.
 ??  ?? GURU: Tromp van Diggelen, a white South African physical culturist, evolved into a health entreprene­ur.
GURU: Tromp van Diggelen, a white South African physical culturist, evolved into a health entreprene­ur.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa