Nelson Mandela will be remembered as a humanitarian, a politician, a visionary. He was also a sports fanatic who understood the crucial role sport could play in unifying the world and he used it with devastating brilliance.
Amongst the thousands of tributes that have poured forth in the last 24 hours since his passing, those from sporting legends across the globe are united in one thing. Here was a man who spanned generations and the class system to prove that with commitment, determination and vision, you CAN mix sport and politics. Nelson Mandela used the true spirit of sport and competition to promote and cement the true sprit of human integration. And when a man so revered as Nelson Mandela affirms sport’s crucial role in society’s perpetual development, who can argue?
In Monaco in 2000, he spoke a few short sentences at a sports gathering which said everything there was to say about sport’s immense power. Mandela was a patron of the Laureus Sport For Good Foundation, an organisation that harnesses the power of sport to promote social change and at the inaugural World Sports Awards ceremony, he said this:
“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”
As with most of Mandela’s speeches, these weren’t hollow words because he used exactly that sporting philosophy to help break down the seemingly unbreakable political barriers in his own country. His life was, of course full of earth shattering moments but sport allowed him to provide one of the most powerful messages history has ever – and possibly will ever – see at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. It wasn’t that the Springboks so memorably won it, it was the sheer fact that South Africa HOSTED it. Without Mandela’s vision, determination and sacrifice that simply could not have happened because Springbok Rugby epitomised everything South Africa had previously stood for. Black South Africans historically hated this white dominated, elitist sport but the Rugby World Cup was a chance to build monumental bridges. The atmosphere he created and the message of hope the tournament itself presented, was finally cemented by the sight of Mandela handing the Webb Ellis Trophy to his victorious, fellow countryman, Francois Pienaar whilst wearing a Springbok jersey with Pienaar’s name emblazoned on the back. As political messages go, it’s gotta be Number One. A black South African who had been imprisoned by whites was openly honouring a white South African as a hero and the white South African was doing the same back – with sport as the platform.
South Africa’s development continued apace and the legacy of change Mandela worked tirelessly for brought recognition from FIFA in 2010 when South Africa became the first African nation to stage the football World Cup. When the country was awarded the honour, half the world said South Africa wasn’t capable of staging such a gigantic, global tournament. Not only did they achieve it with flying colours, those who were there say the atmosphere was unique, multi-cultural and unforgettable.
Nelson Mandela knew the power of sport . He used it to accelerate the pace of change in South Africa and for those who remain in positions of power across sport itself, it’s a principle they should never forget. When it comes to change it’s all too easy to keep saying ‘no’.