It was a day he will never forget. July 25, 1991. The day sailor David Hudson heard that South Africa would be allowed back in the Olympics. At the time, he was on the Mediterranean Sea just off Barcelona, Spain, the very place where the next Olympics were to take place. He was there to watch the world’s best sailors compete, 12 months before the Olympics, to give them a taste of sailing in Mediterranean waters.
“It was something else. When our readmission looked likely, I intended coaching. My intention was to help as a volunteer,” he says.
“It was after Nelson Mandela was released. It was at this stage when the drafting of the Constitution was under way. There was an eminent persons group, three African heavyweights, they came out in April 1991 and did a trip around South Africa to see where things were. “
Hudson was jibing sails and skimming across the water with the best of them from the age of 20. If it wasn’t for apartheid he was a sure bet for the Olympics.
“My Olympic chance would have been 1971, when I competed in the World Championships in the pre-Olympic season. We were very strong then, but that was when I was in my twenties.”
The veteran Hudson, now 70-years-old, says it can take as long as seven years to build an Olympic team, South Africa had 17 weeks in 1991. Hudson, who was by now forging a career as an assistant general manager at Old Mutual, thought he was long past his sell-by date. How wrong he was.
In that December, Hudson got a phone call from David Kitchen, his Olympic sailing partner, who changed everything.
“I knew him, but not very well. He said he was stuck, his helmsman had dropped out, and he’d bought a secondhand boat for the trials. He wanted to sail with me. I said I am 45, I’m not interested,” says Hudson.
“He phoned and phoned and badgered me. I said I wasn’t interested. I was only interested in coaching, I’m not sailing. I’m in the middle of my business career I’m not doing it.”
The tipping point was a doorstep meeting at a swimming gala in Saldanha Bay, in the Western Cape.
“I get a tap on my shoulder and here is this guy. He has flown all the way from Johannesburg. He said I have come to take you to train for the Olympics, I said you’re bloody insane.”
Hudson gave in. He phoned his business and asked for special leave. The sailors met up in Durban four days ahead of the trials which were set for neutral waters off Umhlanga, North of Durban. With five races to go, Hudson says their chances were slim. They needed to place first in the last five races to qualify. They did it.
“Compared to the professional way things are done today, and compared to the fairly professional way things were done in those days, it was a real scramble,” says Hudson.
“My standard gym routine was three days a week. That was just for local sailing. From the moment we got in, we went onto a hectic program through sports science. It was properly guided, dietary and gym. In six months my body changed remarkably.”
Caught up in the excitement, Hudson took a flight to Italy to check out his competition.
“On very short notice I booked a flight, packed a backpack and flew to Italy. I went straight to the event with no accommodation, with nothing organized and I went around talking to all the sailors. I was this unknown guy from Africa, they talked to me as if I was just a tourist. I got the most amazing information, about their boats, how they set up their gear. I hitched up with a journalist who had a spare bed in an apartment. I got myself accredited through a sailing magazine as a journalist. I got on the media boat, was able to watch all of the racing close up. Four days later, I upped on the plane, flew back and was back at work. It was the kind of thing a kid would do, but here I was 45,” says Hudson.
The Olympics drew nearer and the sailors needed to get their boat in the water. The pair joined the European sailing circuit for practice.
“We did it on a shoestring. We camped out in the truck. Kitchen stayed inside. On good weather I slept on the roof and in bad under the truck.”
In Holland it was too expensive to camp, so the two South Africans drove into the countryside, down a country lane and found a quiet place to squat, illegally.
“It was beautiful weather. At about 1AM we heard voices and flashlights and there I was naked in my sleeping bag on the roof of this truck and this beautiful blonde Dutch policewoman is shining her light saying ‘what are you doing here?’ I looked at this and said ‘am I dreaming?’”
“She said ‘where are you from?’. We said Africa. I said ‘why can’t you camp here, are there tigers?’ They burst out laughing and said disappear don’t be here tomorrow.”
En route to the Olympics they also picked up a 400 Deutsche Mark fine for going over the speed limit with a trailer on the autobahn.
“Kitchen was forever losing stuff. That could have been a real issue. So I decided to budget myself and say if David only misplaced three things in a day, it was a good day. It sounds silly. It could have become a big issue. Here it is, you are on a boat and its pissing with rain, its bloody cold and about to get dark and you can’t find the tools because he hasn’t put them back where they belong.”
Hudson arrived in Barcelona a month before the games.
“They gave us an arbitrary anthem and a neutral flag. There was a huge welcome. There was a greater applause for us going into the stadium than even for the host nation.”
For the first time, the Olympic village was built around the marina.
“It was a rundown grotty area, we had been there in 1971. That part of the coast was shambolic. But they turned this pretty worthless area into the great big marina with a great sailing center. In the evenings, the other sportsmen would come ambling down to the marina when they were doing their relaxation.”
The racing went better than Hudson expected.
“On paper we shouldn’t have been able to beat anybody. We had 17 weeks against seven years of training. We ended up struggling with lighter wind and finished 19th out of 23 countries.”
They were the only team on the water without a coach, but at least they were there. Hudson had lived an Olympian dream he thought he’d left behind. On the day he arrived back in South Africa, it was straight back to work.
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