FOR FRANK FREDERICKS, running races has been the easy part. Getting in the races has been another matter. It has never been enough that he could run fast. Somehow the politics of his country - or those who controlled it - and the value placed on the color of a man's skin were deemed more important.
Fredericks, a student at Brigham Young University, was born and raised in Namibia, a small country in (but not of) South Africa. In 1920, after the Germans were forced to relinquish control of the country in the wake of World War I, the South Africans moved in and brought their apartheid policies with them.Apartheid is a fancy word for white rule. Along with it comes a lot of garbage, such as segregation, prejudice, whites-only beaches, etc. It is because of apartheid that the world has banned South Africa - and its provinces - from international athletic competition. This meant that Fredericks couldn't participate in international track and field meets.
The irony is that Namibia was never a willing partner with South Africa. The irony is that Namibia and Fredericks wanted no part of apartheid. Oh, and there is one other irony:
Fredericks is black.
His race is the one the international boycott is supposed to be helping.
"Yeah, I've never understood that," says Fredericks.
Fredericks says this from his apartment in Provo, his adopted American hometown. He's carrying on with business as usual. He's studying computer science and mathematics, and he's making a name for himself in track and field. Last month he won the 200-meter dash at the NCAA Indoor Championships, running the second fastest time in collegiate history. He also placed third in the 55-meter dash, clocking the identical time as the famous runnerup, Rocket Ismail. By then, Fredericks was no longer a surprise. Earlier in the year, he had finished just .01 of a second behind Ben Johnson in a 50-meter dash. Last year he was ranked eighth in the world at 200 meters.
Some people - including BYU coach Willard Hirschi - think Fredericks could medal in the 200 at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
That is, if he gets there.
The International Olympic Committee is still deciding whether to allow Namibia (read: Fredericks) to compete in the Games. The situation remains unresolved despite the fact that last year Namibia finally won its decades-long battle for independence from South Africa.
For Namibians, it was a momentous occasion. Fredericks flew home from Provo just to witness the Independence Day party.
"I remember the moment they took down the South African flag and unfurled the Namibian flag," says Fredericks. "I didn't think it would happen in my lifetime."
Independence meant racial equality. It also meant athletic freedom. Last summer, Fredericks was allowed to compete internationally for the first time (the Olympics is a separate matter). He competed in a handful of races in Europe, but not without a fight. In Zurich, a group of athletes - reportedly, Nigerians - claimed that Fredericks was a South African and thus should be banned from the meet. They claimed that Fredericks had conveniently claimed Namibian citizenship merely to compete internationally, a la Zola Budd. For several hours, arguments ensued behind closed doors while Fredericks sat quietly in hishotel room. Meet officials finally prevailed and Fredericks was allowed to compete, but he raced poorly (fifth place).
"I had a bad attitude," he says. "Everyone is looking at you badly. I wanted to go home after that, but someone said, `Don't run away from this problem.' So I ran one more race."
Fredericks is not new to the problems of prejudice, politics and apartheid, but he is not a political person. Quiet, friendly and mild, he harbors no resentment, no guile, despite his country's history at the hands of white rule. How else do you explain his arrival in predominantly white Provo, or his four-year stay there? Contention is not his style. In Europe he tired of being in the limelight simply because "All (reporters) wanted to talk about was (apartheid)," he says. "I didn't want to talk bad about anyone."
Growing up in Namibia, Fredericks accepted life under apartheid without question simply because he knew no other way. There were white schools and black schools and white teams and black teams and white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods. Within those boundaries, he rarely saw prejudice, but his eyes were opened in 1980, at the age of 13, when he was selected to play on Namibia's first racially mixed soccer team.
"We played in South Africa, and they didn't want to let us (black players) stay together in the same hotel as the white players," he says. "That was the first time it registered with me."
In 1987, Fredericks was one of two black players selected to play for the South African national team. Times were changing. "I had a wonderful experience," he says. "The players treated me well."
It was on the soccer fields of Namibia that physical education teachers discovered Fredericks' speed. Coaxed to the track, he has climbed steadily in the sport since then, but it was primarily his other abiding interest that brought him to the U.S. "Mathematics is my first love," says Fredericks. "I just love math. There is not enough math in computer science. I might teach math some day."
It is only recently that Fredericks, who attends BYU on an academic scholarship, has devoted serious attention to his sport - this now that the Olympics is a possibility, now that he has become world-class, now that his races are broadcast in his homeland and he is a national hero.
"The country is behind me," says Fredericks.
Now if only the IOC will get in line.