The vintage photos of the South African rugby world champions in 1995 do not only tell the story of a sport that has gained muscle, a lot of muscle. It also looks like an accursed gallery since Chester Williams, one of the icons of the team, died Friday, September 6 at the age of 49, from a heart attack.
Chester Williams was the only player of color on this team, world champion at home four years after the end of the apartheid regime. Symbolically, a team representing the "rainbow nation", the half-breed married to a white woman, pampered by Nelson Mandela whose photos adorned his spacious house in the suburbs of Cape Town.
With the World Cup approaching, Chester Williams had felt aloof, sometimes eating alone, in a group that featured a player who had insulted him a few years earlier, winger James Small: "Whore of a Negro, why do you want to play our game? You know you can not! "
James Small, another 1995 world champion, died on July 10th. From a heart attack, without warning, like Chester Williams. In 2017, star Joost Van der Westhuizen left at the age of 45 after battling Charcot disease, a neurodegenerative disease. Ruben Kruger was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 30: died in 2019, at age 39.
A taboo subject
Four out of 29 world champions, aged 50 or under – and coach Kitch Christie, 58, died of leukemia. We must also mention Tinus Linee, nine selections in the 1990s, victim of Charcot disease in 2014; Andre Venter, one of the best players in the world in the late 1990s, has been in a wheelchair since 2006, suffering from a rare disease, transverse myelitis.
It is a statistical anomaly with which South Africa has been struggling for several years. A taboo subject, too: the local press, Saturday morning, evokes very little the tragic fate of this team that embodied the pride of a nation one year after the election of Nelson Mandela.
"It is indeed statistically surprising, said at World Eight years ago Ross Tucker, sports medicine specialist at the University of Cape Town and rugby specialist. I looked in the medical literature, but I found nothing convincing in relation to the absorption of banned substances. The causes of these diseases are many, so we can only speculate. "
The speculations focus on the medication of a team that at that time was at the forefront of physical development. In South African rugby, muscle gain is imperative in adolescence, to be noticed in an elitist system. Awareness-raising actions in high schools have highlighted the prevalence of steroid intake among aspiring rugby players.
The captain of the Springboks François Pienaar wrote in person in his autobiography, Rainbow Warrior ("The rainbow warrior"): "Most of the players reached out when the team doctor circulated the pill box (stimulants) before the matches. " He had been careful to point out that this situation was prior to 1992, when the South African federation had conducted its first anti-doping tests.
The 1995 world champions swear to a few curious journalists, including those of Stage 2 in a survey released in 2014, they used only vitamins. Administered as an injection by the team doctor, which raises doubts about the product in the syringes, at a time when the fight against doping was stammering and easily bypassed.
We only know that in the second half of the 1990s, South Africa was highly medicated and physically dominated its opponents. In 1997, during a spectacular victory over the XV tricolor at the Parc des Princes (52-10), the rumor of an anti-doping control had pushed the doctors of the Boks to present no less than 14 orders justifying the taking of various products, including corticosteroids and ventolin.
"They came with their stuff"
The French who played in South Africa, but especially the club doctors who gradually welcomed, in the 2000s, South African players, testified to the tranquility with which one consumed, in the country double champion of the world, products intended to increase muscle mass.
In the journalist Pierre Ballester's book on doping in rugby, Rugby with charges (La Martinière, 2014), the president of the French Federation's medical commission, Jean-Claude Peyrin, confirmed that there had been discussions in the 2000s between the federation and the anti-doping authorities about South Africans joining the championship : "We had information that they were doing weight training by taking prohibited products. They are trained as adults at 20 years old. "
"They arrived with their stuff in France and, from 2003, there was a problem", revived Bernard Dusfour, president of the medical commission of the National League of rugby.
The major players in this South African rugby of the 1990s never mentioned prohibited practices. The title of 1995 must remain immaculate. The autobiography of Chester Williams, in which he spoke of the discrimination he had suffered under the swagger of the antelope, had caused a stir in the country. When he had received The world four years ago he had confided: "If I had talked about all this during my career, I would never have been selected again and today I know I paid for the release of this book. Here, do not break the trust. "