Durban hosting IOC puts SAfrica back in spotlight

A year after South Africa basked in the glow of staging the

World Cup, the country will be back in the international sports

spotlight when Durban hosts the biggest Olympic gathering in Africa

in more than 70 years.

The International Olympic Committee’s 123rd session, or annual

general assembly, will start next week in this balmy coastal city

on the Indian Ocean.

The meeting will attract royalty, world leaders and sport’s

highest decision-makers to a country once banned by the IOC and

cast into a 30-year isolation for its apartheid regime.

The only previous time the IOC held its assembly in Africa was

in Cairo in 1938. The event may edge Durban closer to hosting the

first African Olympics in the future.

The IOC executive board meets Monday, with the entire 110-member

body in session Wednesday through Sunday.

The centerpiece of the meeting is the vote Wednesday on the host

city for the 2018 Winter Games. The three candidates are Annecy,

France; Munich; and Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Local organizers say the gathering represents a ”spiritual”

return to the Olympic family for South Africa and is the latest

sign that it sees sport as a vehicle to carry its reformed image to

the rest of the world.

Now an IOC executive board member and the former head of South

Africa’s nonracial Olympic body, Sam Ramsamy led an emotional

return to the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992 alongside Nelson

Mandela.

The Durban-born Ramsamy said this session is probably the most

significant Olympic moment for his country.

”Having waited for 117 years to host this event in our country

and knowing how cities and countries vie to host the IOC session,

Durban is certainly fortunate,” Ramsamy said. ”This gives me an

opportunity to personally welcome my colleagues to the city where I

was born.”

South Africa has enjoyed memorable highlights in rugby, cricket

and soccer. It’s now eager to make its mark in the Olympic

world.

”In a sense, it’s bringing the Olympic movement to South

Africa,” Durban city manager Mike Sutcliffe told The Associated

Press. ”This is closing that circle where they’re coming back and

hopefully helping us as we develop a spirit of Olympism. We have

all the right ingredients and are fully ready for this. I have no

doubt about that.”

Boosted by its widely praised World Cup, South Africa

immediately targeted a bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Durban, with its mild midyear temperatures and burgeoning

tourist setup, was the overwhelming favorite to be the candidate

after Cape Town failed in a bid for the 2004 Games.

A possible bid was welcomed by IOC President Jacques Rogge.

But in May, the government said it was not the right time,

unwilling to commit to another major financial investment for a

sports event with poverty still affecting many of South Africa’s 50

million people.

Still, a resounding success for Durban could revive a 2020 bid

before the IOC’s Sept. 1 deadline.

So far only Rome has confirmed it will go for 2020, while Tokyo

and Madrid are possible contenders.

”South Africa might never enjoy the same position in 20 years

to come, to host such events,” South Africa’s sports minister

Fikile Mbalula said last month, adding a 2020 bid was not ruled

out. ”I think we have to do everything in our power, if there’s an

opportunity or an avenue to host a mega event, let’s do that.”

Despite the dampened Olympic hopes, the IOC gathering in South

Africa’s sunny city is an ideal opportunity to impress. An

ambitious South Africa is also targeting the 2022 Commonwealth

Games, a track world championships and a Diamond League meet.

”We as a country must realize that such major events are few

and far between and many countries would give their eye teeth to

have such a session in their own cities,” South African Olympic

Committee President Gideon Sam said. ”It cannot be more opportune

as we set our sights on continuing to bring bigger and better

events to the continent of Africa.”

The 2018 bid race is almost a side issue for Durban – a city of

just under 5 million people characterized by a mix of inhabitants

descended from Indian immigrants, South Africa’s Zulu kingdom and

British colonials.

It’s where Mahatma Gandhi developed some of his philosophies of

peaceful resistance and where visitors were wowed last year by the

Moses Mabhida World Cup stadium and its giant roof arch.

Next week’s delegates will include the presidents of South

Korea, Hungary and Germany and royalty like Prince Albert of Monaco

– with new South African bride and former Durban resident Charlene

Wittstock.

The city – with a World Cup and a Commonwealth Heads of

Government meeting under its belt – will have no problem with the

high-profile visitors, officials said.

”There have been times when we had more heads of states in the

city than this, so we know what we will be dealing with,” national

police spokesman Col. Vishnu Naidoo told AP.

AP Sports Writer Gerald Imray in Johannesburg contributed to

this report.

Gerald Imray can be reached at

http://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP