THE new South Africa is pinning much of its hopes for economic and social progress on a sporting event. In a sports-crazed nation where athletes are idols, a bid for the Olympics Games in 2004 is a unifying social force. 'We're very serious,' stresses Cape Town businessman Chris Ball, recently named chief executive of the Olympic Bid Committee. The chartered accountant and banker heads an impressive collection of commercial leaders determined to persuade the Olympic movement to opt for the beautiful city at the tip of Africa. Other venues vying for the 2004 games include Rome, St Petersburg, Istanbul and Rio De Janeiro. 'The Olympics is precisely the catalyst South Africa needs,' insists Mr Ball. A former rower and rugby player, he shares the national passion for sports. And he is not alone in seeing the games as a golden opportunity for a country in transition. 'This will be a development-oriented bid,' he explains, describing a vision of how an Olympics-linked infrastructure will transform the city from one built on racially segregated lines to a modern metropolis. The physical and logistical challenges of staging a mammoth sporting event can be overcome; Mr Ball points out the total backing from President Nelson Mandela and the national cabinet, the provincial Western Cape and municipal governments, business communities in Durban and Johannesburg and promised international sponsorship already committed by multinationals such as Siemens and Mercedes-Benz. 'There's no concern about whether we can do it,' he says. 'The answer is yes. We've got the will, the energy, the financing, the knowledge, the skills and the ability. 'South Africa also has the international goodwill.' Political and economic goals are equally important as sporting prowess. Today's Cape Town reflects the realities of the recent past when apartheid decreed racial separation. Bid organisers hope the investment that flows into the Western Cape because of a successful Olympics effort will change the face of the city. Most business is located in the inner-city bowl under the steep flanks of Table Mountain. The former racial rules squeezed black and coloured businessmen out of this lucrative quarter. Mr Ball and other Olympics boosters are committed to making sure these 'formerly disadvantaged' groups are guaranteed at least a fair share of games-fuelled business. A 40 per cent share of all ventures surrounding the Olympics will go to black businesses. A successful bid will be a self-fulfilling prophecy for economic advance, Mr Ball argues. 'It will also be an extension of our political miracle,' he says, referring to the enormous changes of the past five years which saw the arid years of apartheid and sanctions swept away. Economic analysis shows the Olympics through to the year 2010 will pump billions of dollars into the Western Cape and provide 115,000 sustainable jobs. Even without the games, local authorities are busy approving 31 new hotels in the region around Cape Town, which is going through a major tourism boom that sees most existing accommodation sold-out during the Christmas high season. To help house the 750,000 expected if the Cape gets the event, up to 28 ocean liners will be moored in the scenic harbour where Dutch sailing ships three centuries ago loaded supplies bound for the East Indies. Already, thousands of ordinary residents - of all races - are volunteering to accommodate visitors. 'Logistically, it's not an issue,' says Mr Ball with what many regard as over-optimism. 'It's simply a matter of planning the Cape Town of the 21st century.' That will come anyway, Olympics or not. What the games will do is help unite not just the people of Cape Town, but the entire nation. It will also, says Mr Ball, be a glowing beacon of hope for all Africa, a showpiece for the continent. Mr Ball and other canny businessmen on the bid committee mix sound commercial commonsense with a vision for the future. South Africa has had a depressing negative per-capita income growth for the past five years of political change. People have become freer and poorer. Mr Ball contends that the country needs many years of six per cent economic growth to develop and provide jobs and security for a population growing at a frightening three per cent annually. 'It's a race between too many people and economic opportunity,' he notes grimly. Anyone who has seen the clutches of desperate men sitting at rural roadsides waiting to be picked up for casual work can appreciate the social and political dynamite of a country where unemployment touches 30 per cent. That's partly why the race for the 2004 Olympics has almost universal backing, despite a Stop the Games organisation of spoilers. 'It will make a fundamental social and economic difference to our country,' Mr Ball insists. IT'S impossible for someone from Hong Kong to appreciate or understand how deeply sport is ingrained in the South African psyche. For a century, rugby was virtually the state religion of the white population, especially the Afrikaners. When Mr Mandela last year donned a Springbok jersey and the green-and-gold South African side booted its way to international supremacy and won the Rugby World Cup, it was a moment of pride for all races. For the man who had spent 27 years in jail to wear the jersey that is so closely linked to Apartheid was a powerful symbol of reconciliation after years of mutual mistrust and suspicion. Similarly, whites cheered as lustily as blacks when the country recently became the African champions in soccer. And last week as I travelled around Cape Province, South Africans of all colours were glued to television sets with equal avidness as the country's cricketers whacked away in India and Pakistan. 'Hosting the Olympics will be a great challenge and opportunity for our new society,' Mr Ball contends. Former Cape Town mayor Gordon Oliver, who now heads regional tourism efforts, says a successful games bid will position the historic old port as a major city, ready to compete with the world. 'It will enhance our self image and pride,' he adds. 'Cape Town has always been a city with a soul. 'The games will elevate our status.'