We don't want politics to intrude on our sports world. The very reason many of us escape to sports is that it has little to do with politics. Give us the scores and the highlights, not boycotts and picket lines. ESPN tripleheaders and NFL Sundays on the sofa with the curtains drawn.

Unfortunately this is not the real world. Not even the real sports world.

Within the past year Shoal Creek dragged us off the sofa and made us open the blinds. So did the NFL's reconsideration of Arizona as a site for its 1993 Super Bowl. And now the news that the International Olympic Committee will send a delegation to meet with South African political and sports leaders about the shunned nation's possible return to international competition. Sports and politics cannot be divorced.

The very essence of sporting events makes many of them huge moments of political solidarity, pride or controversy. Jesse Owens, after winning in Berlin, being snubbed by Hitler. Joe Louis losing to, then beating, Max Schmeling. Jackie Robinson integrating major league baseball. John Carlos and Tommie Smith winning, then saluting black power from the medal stand in Mexico City. The U.S. hockey miracle vs. the Soviet Union. They are among the greatest athletic moments; they are also events that sparked enormous political awareness throughout the world. It's not a coincidence.

The impending Fiesta Bowl and the possible return of South African athletes to international playing fields have sparked similar political firestorms that almost certainly will far overshadow the sports value of either.

Some of us wonder if the time is right to be making such overtures to South Africa. President F.W. DeKlerk has been making all the right public relations moves, and Nelson Mandela himself said recently he favors the easing of economic sanctions. With the outlook so encouraging, the IOC decided to send a delegation to South Africa for a formal meeting, the first since the country was expelled from the Olympic family in 1970 because of apartheid.

But isn't the IOC made up of princes and dukes and lords, many of whom have no idea what's going on outside their own palace walls?

The pillars of apartheid are still standing and completely intact. Mandela still cannot vote. The Group Areas Act, which says blacks cannot live in a certain community, is still on the books. Black children still play soccer with rags rolled into a lump. There is an impression of massive change that recent visitors say does not match the reality one finds in the townships.

Mark Mathabane, a black South African now living in North Carolina who wrote the best-selling book "Kafir Boy," said: "It is extremely appropriate for these types of conversations to begin. The time has come for the world community to discuss readmitting South Africa -- on the condition that there is continued progress. It would be a great gesture to South Africans to say, 'We are accepting you back, but step by step.' I think South Africans {officials} are making a strong case for themselves to be judged on their efforts."

Mathabane and others have made the observation that for the average white South African who may be relatively unaffected by the economic sanctions imposed by much of the Western world, the isolation from the international sports community hurts more than anything. No title fights. Few tennis stars. The French won't come play soccer with them. "Sports is the only arena," Mathabane said, "where South Africans -- blacks, coloreds and whites -- meet. That's one reason I've long believed it's impossible to divorce the two, sports and politics."

Professional soccer, even in South Africa, is integrated. The teams and the fans. "I'm searching for something else I can say that about," Mathabane said, "and I can come up with nothing, really. For that moment {at a soccer game} they forget their divisions and become like human beings. It's remarkable. You see a glimpse of the possibilities. I remember the year Arthur Ashe came to South Africa, 1973 to Ellis Park in Johannesburg. Unconsciously, a white person would turn to the side and say, 'What a wonderful stroke.' And the person he turned to would be black. That would lead to discussion: 'Who are you? Where do you live?' It was a spontaneity that was marvelous to behold. I met people who invited me to where they lived."

Mathabane played with warped tennis rackets, on courts of sand. He was surprised, recently, to learn that one of the top junior tennis players in South Africa is black, "13 or 14 years old," Mathabane said. "Perhaps his feet will cross the blades of Wimbledon soon. Even America hasn't had more than a half-dozen Arthur Ashes."

Mathabane was saying, in his way, that America too has its political and racial problems in sport. The Martin Luther King holiday issue may have left the front pages and the top of the newscasts in most areas, but not in Alabama, where the University of Alabama is still involved in heated debate over whether its football team should be playing in the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona, a state that voted not to have the MLK holiday.

A University of Alabama professor of law, Wythe Holt, told a federal court that it is "a slap in the face" for the school to play in the Fiesta Bowl, "an example of institutional racism." Holt is white. So is James Blacksher, an attorney representing alumni groups at two Alabama universities. "We white folks have come to believe that the only kind of racism is the kind that wears a hood," he told the court. "The kind the state of Alabama has imbedded in higher education for the past 100 years is in its structure and policies." Gene Stallings, the head coach who said publicly, "What controversy?" is being shouted down, thankfully.

The school's faculty senate is involved. So are the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, NAACP, State Rep. Alvin Holmes from Montgomery, Gov. Guy Hunt. That pales in comparison to the list of people and organizations who will be involved in deciding whether to let a kid born in South Africa pick up a ball and throw it in the spirit of Olympic competition.