To understand a little of what Frank Fredericks means to his native Namibia, perhaps you need only see the way he is greeted at the airport when he returns home, or to see that he has twice been named the country's Athlete of the Year, or to see that reporters call him in Provo - his home away from home - to talk to him regularly.
Or this. Two days after Fredericks claimed a rare double sprint victory at last month's NCAA track championships, he received a faxed message from his homeland:REPUBLIC OF NAMIBIA
MINISTRY OF YOUTH AND SPORT
To: Mr. Frankie Fredericks
We here at home have learnt of your glorious achievement with joy and happiness. You have put Namibia on the world map, and I have confidence that you will do more.
When I broke the news in Cabinet this morning, everybody applauded you. We are all proud of you! You have set a new record for Africa and keep our glorious fire burning. Congratulations and keep it up.
On behalf of the government,
Pendukeni Iivula Ithana
To understand such joy, you must realize that for decades Namibia had been excluded from international sport because it was a province of South Africa, which still faces such sanctions because of its apartheid polices. Since winning its independence from South Africa last year, and thus the right finally to compete internationally, Namibia has been anxious to embrace Fredericks, a superb athlete, student and citizen.
Just in the nick of time, it seems, Namibia has an athlete who can compete with the best in the world. That much was confirmed at the NCAA championships, in which Fredericks, a senior at BYU, won both the 100- and 200-meter dashes.
Not since Southern Cal's Clarence Edwards accomplished the feat in 1978 had any athlete managed to win both sprints in the same NCAA meet. What's more, Fredericks produced astounding times in both events - 10.03 and 19.90. Alas, both events were aided by a wind that was barely above the allowable 2 meters per second for record purposes; however, in the trial heats, Fredericks clocked a legal 20.13 in the 200 - the fastest time in the world this year and an African record. What was even more impressive was the way Fredericks ran 20.13 - letting off the gas over the final 20 meters.
"I was mad at myself when I heard the time," said Fredericks. "I should have run it all the way through. I could have broken 20 (seconds). I didn't think it would be that fast."
Nevertheless, Fredericks, who also ran a leg on BYU's fifth-place 4 x 100-meter relay, pulled off a double that no one had managed in 13 years. Why is the double so difficult?
"The level of competition is a lot tougher than it used to be," says BYU track coach Willard Hirschi. "It used to be you ran against American sprinters. Now you not only have the great American sprinters, but you have a lot of great sprinters from Africa as well. And some people believe you can't be fresh enough to do both races, so they take a shot at one. You've got three races (two trial heats, plus finals) in each event, and if you run on a relay that adds two more."
Hirschi believes that Fredericks, the May and June Deseret News Athlete of the Month for his performances in both the conference (in May) and national championships (May and June), will be a medal contender at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. The most difficult part for Fredericks - simply getting into the meet - is behind him. Shortly after Fredericks' NCAA victory, the International Olympic Committee announced that it would allow Namibia to compete in the Olympics. Some believe that the emergence of Fredericks - probably the country's only Olympic-caliber athlete - helped pave the way for Namibia's acceptance by the IOC. The eyes of Namibia will be on Fredericks next year when he becomes the country's first Olympic athlete.
"It's hard to be a role model, but I am confident that I can do that for my country," says Fredericks.
"Namibia doesn't have much of an identity in sport," says Hirschi. "Frank is their only athlete of international significance. So he, more than anyone else, gets Namibia's name in the paper. It's not a large country - six million people. He's able to get Namibia's name out world wide more easily than anything else."
Fredericks, who ranked No. 8 in the world last year at 200 meters, is carrying Namibia's flag again at the moment, competing on the European track circuit. In his first race he beat Ben Johnson, among others, to win the 100-meter dash in a meet in Finland (he clocked 10.12); he also finished third in a 200 in Helsinki, missing first place by a narrow .03 of a second. Running in France on July 1, Fredericks finished fourth in the 100 - .08 behind runnerup Carl Lewis and three places ahead of Johnson - and second in the 200 - to Leroy Burrell. Two days later he won the 200 in Stockholm, beating Lewis, among others.
"I'm going to run until July 20, and then I'll take a break and start training again for the worlds," says Fredericks, looking ahead to the World Championships in September.
Following that meet, Fredericks will return to Provo to complete his undergraduate studies in computer science (he's scheduled to finish in December), and then he'll begin work on a post-graduate degree while training for the Olympics.
In the meantime, running will pay the bills. According to Bob Wood, his Salt Lake-based agent, Fredericks is about to sign a shoe contract with Mizuno.
But first things first. Says Fredericks, reflecting on his NCAA performance, "I feel good going into the World Championships now I know I can run these times in the 100 and 200."