Published July 01, 2011
| Associated Press
DURBAN, South Africa – 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.
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