Commonwealth Games / Athletics: Sepeng is the symbol for new era: Schoolboy holds South Africa's hopes

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The Independent Online
HEZEKIEL SEPENG can remember the time he could not use the same bathroom as white people, eat in the same restaurant or walk in the same parks. But now this young, talented and, most importantly, black schoolboy is seen as the symbol for a new South Africa.

Sepeng was the athlete the South Africans chose to carry their flag at last Thursday's opening ceremony to officially end their 36-year exile from the Commonwealth Games. Today, in the 800 metres, the 20-year-old begins his bid to become the first runner from his country to win a medal since the 400m hurdler, Eric Potgieter, in 1958.

The South African team arrived here with only seven non-white athletes among their 112-strong squad, a figure that has raised plenty of disapproving eyebrows. The South African Sports Minister, Steve Tshwete, offered an assurance, however, that the number of non-whites will increase once they have more access to facilities. Sepeng is here because he was given that opportunity at Potchefstroom Boys High School, the only English-speaking school in his home town and the first to accept black students.

He was born on a chicken farm where his father still works as a driver. 'I went to the farm school until I was 17 and only did sprints during the athletic season. The rest of the time I played soccer,' Sepeng said. He continued playing football until two years ago when he received a kick on the thigh, which led him to re- evalute his priorities.

His abilities as an 800m runner are only a recent discovery. When his coach started teaching at Potchefstroom in 1982, J P Van Der Merwe realised that he had an unpolished diamond on his hands. Under Van Der Merwe's guidance, Sepeng has made giant steps. Within weeks of winning the AAA junior title at Bedford last year, he found himself trading elbows with Tom McKean and the Olympic champion, William Tanui, in the World Championship final in Stuttgart. He finished fifth. Afterwards, McKean said he had just raced the next Olympic gold medallist.

Sepeng, whose personal best is 1min 45.32sec, has been beaten by three of his rivals here this summer - the Kenyans, Billy Konchellah and William Serem, and Brendan Hanigan, of Australia - but his strength lies in racing well on the big occasion.

It is refreshing to meet a young man who has his athletics in perspective. Having recently signed a three-year contract with the London- based agent, Kim McDonald, the boy who once could not afford his bus-fare into town can travel to Europe and still come back with change out of the price of an air ticket. Yet dollar signs are not flashing up before his eyes. 'I'm supposed to go back on the European circuit when I finish the Commonwealth Games, but I want to get back and finish my final exams,' he said.

Both coach and athlete realise they are in a pressure situation. Two years ago, Sepeng was just a talented kid. Now he is one of the hottest properties around and a symbol of the new South Africa. 'I see the human being and don't look at him as just a commodity,' Van Der Merwe said. 'A lot of my role at the moment is to protect him so that he isn't over-exposed.'

But Sepeng's talent may make that an impossible job. 'It's going to be tough in Victoria but my mind is right. My mind is strong. I'm going for a win. I think all of South Africa will be looking at me.' What he should have said is all of the world.

Despite being distractd by two false starts, Colin Jackson won the first semi-final of the 110m hurdles in 13.51sec last night. Tony Jarrett won the other semi-final in 13.52. Du'aine Ladejo, in the 400m, and Linford Christie in the 100m, coasted through their first races without difficulty.