Olympic Games: Athletics: Strydom's moment of stardom: Mike Rowbottom reports from Barcelona on the return of the South Africans to the Olympic fold after a 32-year absence

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The Independent Online
Shortly before 10.0 here yesterday morning, Trevor Strydom advanced towards his opponent in the modern pentathlon fencing competition, routinely placed the point of his epee on the other's hand-guard to check the electric scoring system, then lunged forward into history.

The Olympic schedule had decreed that of South Africa's squad of 97, this gently spoken, 34-year- old dental technician should become the first to compete for his country at the Games since 1960.

In the event, he was actively engaged for two seconds short of a minute before suffering what even the uninitiated could see was a direct hit - or, as he described it, 'a straight fleche' on to his chest.

No matter. As he flipped up his protective mask, his boyish face was creased in a huge grin of relief. There were another 63 opponents to meet in the course of the day, and as the South African Broadcasting Company moved in to satisfy the demands of a doting television audience of four million, Strydom and stardom briefly embraced.

'It becomes a bit emotional when you think about what this means to South Africa, so you have to try to put it out of your mind,' he said. 'But in the first bout I did find it hard to keep my feelings in check.'

He could be forgiven that - after all, it was a bout he had been waiting 17 years to start. In 1975, when he took up the event, there was still some international opposition around, but seven years later the sporting isolation of the Republic for its apartheid policies became total.

Strydom was forced to accept that his international career no longer existed when, in 1982, having accepted an invitation to play for a Swiss club team, he was barred from a tournament in Lisbon at two hours' notice. So he gave the sport up. He turned his energies to life-saving off the coast close to Kloof, near Durban, where he lives with his wife Kerry and three-week-old son Grantley. He continued to earn his living by the delicate construction of dental crowns and bridges.

But the tantalising possibility of Olympic competition drew him back to the sport in September last year, and he began training hard. 'To teach him any new techniques in such a short time was impossible,' his coach, Pauli Hentschel, said. 'But he had kept up with his running and swimming and we concentrated on getting him into the best possible physical shape we could.'

Having proved himself the best of the Republic's few remaining exponents of the combined demands of fencing, running, shooting, riding and swimmming - there are only about 15 currently competing - he was suddenly in a position to grasp what he had hardly dared to hope for, what he feared might be denied him at the last hour.

'It came just in the nick of time,' he said. 'I am at about the age when most modern pentathletes retire. I don't want to be around for Atlanta - I want the younger guys to be beating me by then.'

Having been in exile for so long, his ambitions here are realistic; a repeat of the 20th position which he achieved at the recent German championships in Munich would be quite satisfactory. 'I don't see myself being in the medals at all,' he said. 'I just want to do myself and my country proud.'

In the meantime, a country which has been denied Olympic television coverage in the past eight years is being proud of him.

He gave the television an embarrassed, sidelong glance as the interviewer framed his last question: 'Finally, Trevor, can you really believe that you are really here?' Trevor pinched his cheek. 'Yes,' he said.

Two weeks from now it's back to the bridgework.

(Photograph omitted)