OSU’s African Students’ Association (ASA) voiced its opposition to the wrestling team’s connections, specifically the head coach’s relationship, to the South African Wrestling Federation (SAWF). The wrestling team’s head coach Dale Thomas began his career at OSU in 1957 and it lasted through 1990; the Dale Thomas Wrestling room is named after him due to his exemplary record with the wrestling team. Thomas not only led the team to numerous victories, he also traveled internationally to teach wrestling techniques in other countries, and often hosted workshops at his ranch so coaches could apply the techniques learned with their own teams. In September of 1980, one of his workshops became controversial when Thomas hosted seventeen South African coaches. He had traveled to South Africa several times before and had pre-existing relationships with the South African wrestling community. In the next two years, 1981 and 1982, he arranged to take a group of student athletes to South Africa. In 1982, he also invited South African wrestling coaches and athletes to one of his workshops as part of an Oregon Cultural Exchange Program.
During these three years the ASA, which represented about one hundred and fifty students, wrote letters to the media, hosted prominent public figures representing the non-white South African perspective, and actively lobbied the university administration to oppose Thomas’ relationships with the SAWF. The controversy sparked a great deal of interest and divided the local community. Numerous community members wrote letters to newspapers both in opposition and in support of Thomas. Those in favor of Thomas argued that sports and politics should remain separate, while those in opposition argued that Thomas’ actions were indirectly condoning apartheid. The university administration’s stance on the matter was that the trips and workshops were not sponsored by the university, so OSU could not prevent Thomas and the students from going as private citizens. Notably, within the sports community, the NCAA had strict rules regarding wrestling competitions during the off-season that would jeopardize a student athlete’s eligibility to compete in seasonal events, and the Wrestling Division of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) upheld the international sports completion ban against South African. Due to the ASA’s efforts, Thomas’ activities were scrutinized and investigated by these organizations.
It was the work of the ASA that brought the issue of apartheid to the attention of the OSU and Corvallis community as well as the media, and after 1982, the exchanges between Oregon and South African wrestlers stopped. Unfortunately, it was not until the late 1980s that individual nations across the world began to officially pass sanctions against South Africa, and not until 1990 that the transition toward equality began. In 1994 apartheid finally came to an end with the election of Nelson Mandela.
Photos and Sources Cited
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- African Students’ Association Letterhead
- Dale Thomas, OSU Wrestling Coach
- OSU’s The Daily Barometer Cartoon, 1981
- African Students’ Association, 1978