Mandela and sports – a symbiotic relationship

The world lost one of its greatest champions on Dec. 5, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, at the age of 95. While you are well aware of the political, personal, and philanthropic influence Mandela had, what you may not be aware of is the influence he had on sports and the principles he saw from it.

“Sports 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. Sports can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers,” Mandela once said.

He also sought sports as a way to redefine a nation. As President of the African National Congress, and still working tirelessly to change the way South Africa was run, he was instrumental in the award of the 1995 Rugby World Cup to South Africa, an event immortalized by Morgan Freeman in the Clint Eastwood directed film Invictus. With Mandela’s inspiration, then as the elected president of his nation, South Africa upset New Zealand to win the title.

Using sports as a way to break through the seemingly unbreakable barriers, Mandela famously sported the team jersey emblazoned with the logo of an antelope, on the day of the final. Rugby was a sport then seen mainly as only a White man’s game. At a final attended almost entirely by Whites, President Mandela’s wearing of the Springbok’s jersey and emblem served as a powerful statement that indeed a new day had dawned. The antelope emblem, so beloved by his jailers, was widely associated as a racist symbol—until that moment.

John Carlin, author of Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, the book Invictus was based on, said: “There was a moment of jaw-dropping disbelief, a sharp collective intake of breath, and suddenly the crowd broke into a chant, which grew steadily louder, of ‘Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!'”

Due to the policies of the South African government, sports teams representing the country were largely banned from international competitions. Along with the boycott of nations from competing in the country itself, these were sources of pain for Mandela. Shortly after being inaugurated at president in 1994, South Africa hosted the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time qualifying the country’s soccer team for the World Cup in the United States that summer.

Emphasizing the importance he believed sports had on his nation, Mandela said: “I wanted my people to know that I became president sooner because of the sacrifices made by our athletes during the years of the boycott.”

In 2010, South Africa became the first African nation to host the World Cup. On the eve of the Final, Nelson’s great-granddaughter Zenani, tragically died in a car accident, and the nation wept. The following day, in what turned out to be Mandela’s last major public appearance, the world was graced once more with the love of one man for his country, and one country for its shining star.

Mandela, once a top-notch boxer and long distance runner wrote: “I have always believed that exercise is a key not only to physical health, but to peace of mind. Exercise dissipates tension, and tension is the enemy of serenity.”

The loss of Madiba has been felt worldwide. It always will be in a great number of arenas. The influence Nelson Mandela had on sports, and sports had on Nelson Mandela, goes a long way in understanding the man forever known as ‘The Father of a Nation.’