“Sport can create hope where once there was only despair” – Nelson Mandela


“He told me thanks for all we’ve done for South Africa,” – Francois Pienaar, South African rugby captain in 1995 on what Mandela said to him as he handed over the World Cup to him in Johannesburg

This afternoon at about 5, Anthony, my roommate at the Temple University residence hall received a call from his girlfriend, Kim. She wanted to know if he’d heard the news about Nelson Mandela passing away. Anthony said he just got a news alert on his phone. From ESPN. He expressed his surprise that the alert that came the earliest was from ESPN and not CNN and the like. I got the news on twitter and soon there was a picture from Liverpool Football Club’s official account showing Mandela in a reds jersey when he met the team. I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of personal loss, as I am sure many others have.

Nelson Mandela, a man great for so many reasons, it’s futile to even attempt to list them, always had a special connection to sport. Whether it was during his days at the Robben Island prison following soccer scores, or inquiring with visitors if Don Bradman was still alive, there are few world leaders who have so genuinely believed in the power of sport to rekindle hope and leveraged it so well to make society better.

I have always marveled at how during his youth Mandela’s face so uncannily resembled Muhammad Ali’s. And unsurprisingly, Mandela was a big fan of Ali. He once said, “If I was in a crowded room with Ali, I would stop what I was doing and go to him. He is the Greatest.” That is high endorsement not just because of Mandela’s stature but the fact that Madiba was a boxer himself. When he became the president of South Africa in 1994, his immediate mission was to begin healing the scars of apartheid and reunite the nation of South Africa. One of the first things he did immediately after his inauguration as President was watch a soccer game involving South Africa and Zambia. South Africa, out of international sport because of apartheid, made its reentry, none more dramatic than that historic World Cup of Rugby in 1995.

Mandela took great interest in what was seen as the white man’s sport and used the event (South Africa were hosts) to unite the nation to rally behind the Springboks, as the rugby team was known. The Clint Eastwood film ‘Invictus’ (based on the book ‘Playing With The Enemy’) chronicles how the surprise South African title triumph acted as a breaker of barriers as Mandela handed the trophy over to the white captain of the team, Francois Pienaar.

We often talk about taking sport as a metaphor for life and being inspired to be better based on what we see on a sporting pitch. Mandela, like he did for almost everything he believed in, lived that spirit. He was instrumental is landing South Africa the soccer World Cup in 2010 and it turned out to be an amazing showcase for the people. Above all, for Mandela, sport represented hope and provided the opportunity to heal, two things he deeply believed in. Today’s generation and the ones to come will do very well to keep his legacy of hope and kindness alive through the language he believed everyone easily understood – sport.

“Sport 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.” – Nelson Mandela


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