The 125-strong squad cheered and clapped as their plane landed in Barcelona. Athletes, coaches and officials, most of whom were not born when their country last competed in the Games - with an all-white team, in 1960 - said they were elated, proud and relieved.
The harmony lasted only until feet hit the tarmac, however, when officials began berating each other over the absence of Petranoff, whose case has split ASA, the South African athletics federation.
The javelin thrower had competed in South Africa as an American citizen, while the republic was ostracised by world athletics because of its apartheid policies. Banned by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, Petranoff became a naturalised South African.
Sam Ramsamy, president of the South African National Olympic Committee (NOCSA), said one faction of the ASA, led by the president Deon van Zyl, had nominated Petranoff for selection. Another, led by the general secretary Mvuzo Mbebe, had rejected him.
'Until we get a categoric nomination from the ASA there is nothing we can do about it. It is a problem for ASA, it is an internal wrangle and that is all,' Ramsamy said.
The deadline for Olympic nominations was midnight last night, and Van Zyl said the attempt to exclude Petranoff was politically motivated and he had referred the issue to the International Olympic Committee. The IOC said Petranoff was unlikely to compete because of the row.
The NOCSA vice-president, Mluleki George, accused Van Zyl of provoking the ASA split. 'He is fighting something that should have been fought in South Africa. The IOC should stay out of this thing . . . I don't think it is going to be a big deal if Petranoff does not take part in the Olympic Games. He is spoiling all the good spirit created in coming to Barcelona.'
Van Zyl was 'becoming ridiculous by behaving like this', George continued. 'We can't decide this in a foreign land. To us, this is just a small storm in a cup. Our only worry is that Van Zyl is blowing the issue of Petranoff out of proportion.
Van Zyl retorted: 'NOCSA have been allowing themselves to be influenced by politicians and by politically minded athletics administrators who know nothing about athletics and very little about politics.'
Ramsamy said the dispute would not tarnish the joy of returning to the Olympics. 'Nothing has spoilt this. We have teething problems and teething problems are not important at this stage.'
Meanwhile, Pieterse, whose form has dipped dramatically after suffering from a liver complaint, had a training run in Hampstead before deciding she would be fit to run the 3,000 metres. She now intends to fly to Barcelona on Thursday.
The Cubans returned to the Olympic Games after a 12-year absence due to political reasons, but only after an unscheduled emergency stop in Newfoundland. A crew member fell ill and the plane, carrying 132 athletes and officials from Havana, stopped at Gander to let him off, causing a delay of four hours.
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