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Nelson Mandela and his wife, Graca Machel, stirred the crowd before the World Cup final in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2010.

Matt Dunham • Associated Press,

Mandela embraced power of sport to unite

  • Article by: JERE LONGMAN
  • New York Times
  • December 6, 2013 - 8:20 PM

His last public appearance came at the final of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Wearing a coat, gloves and a fur hat, Nelson Mandela seemed frail and dressed against something more penetrating than the evening chill.

Still, he waved from a golf cart and stirred a stadium built like a calabash, a hollowed-out gourd meant to symbolize a melting pot of cultures. Acutely, Mandela understood the power of sport to provide dignity and hope in the face of state-sponsored oppression, to undermine discrimination with resistance and to heal and to help unite a society that the racial segregation of apartheid had brutally divided.

“Sport has the power to change the world,” Mandela, who died Thursday, was often quoted as saying. “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.”

A boxer, Mandela belonged to a generation that adhered to the amateur ideal of sport, believing it possessed an intrinsic value and offered lessons in fair play, gracious victory and edifying defeat, said Charles Korr, an American historian and a co-author of “More Than Just a Game,” a book about soccer and apartheid.

It was not a naive view, Korr said, but one that was savvy and pragmatic and rebutted the notion that sports and politics should not mix.

Mandela was kept isolated and was not allowed to play in the prisoners’ soccer league on Robben Island, a harsh penal colony off Cape Town where he spent 18 of his 27 years in incarceration. Still, he eagerly followed the league results and recognized soccer’s value to other prisoners in providing a sense of humanity and defiance.

“The energy, passion and dedication the game created made us feel alive and triumphant despite the situation we found ourselves in,” Mandela said in a film sponsored by FIFA, soccer’s global governing body.

Robben Island was also where Mandela reinforced his support for the international sports boycott against South Africa, under which the country was banned from the Olympics from 1964 to 1992.

Mandela became a huge fan of the activism of Muhammad Ali. A photo of U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their gloved fists in protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics was also smuggled onto Robben Island, further validating for Mandela and other prisoners the value of dissent in sports in bringing social change.

“He definitely believed that sports and politics are entwined,” said Richard Lapchick, who was a leading anti-apartheid activist in the United States and is the founding director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. “You could smuggle in trade, oil and currency, but if you had a sporting event, you couldn’t play in the dark. He realized this is a sports-mad world, and it was the way that people in various countries learned what apartheid was really about.”

A year after Mandel became South Africa’s first black president, at the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela made a widely heralded gesture of reconciliation and nation-building that would have once been unthinkable.

Rugby was the preferred sport of South Africa’s white minority. For blacks, the springbok, the mascot of the national rugby team, was a symbol of tyranny. While imprisoned, Mandela said, he invariably rooted for other countries to defeat his own.

By 1995, full democracy had replaced apartheid, and although South Africa had but one black rugby player on its roster, the Springboks played the World Cup under the slogan “One Team, One Country.” As the tournament opened in Cape Town, he told the players: “Our loyalties have completely changed. We have adopted these young men as our own boys.”

A month later, South Africa defeated New Zealand in the final in Johannesburg. Mandela ignored the counsel of many advisers and handed the trophy to the Springboks’ white captain, Francois Pienaar, while wearing a green jersey bearing Pienaar’s No. 6. On Mandela, an emblem of repression was transformed into something unifying and restorative.

“He told me thanks for all we’ve done for South Africa,” Pienaar said at the time. “I reciprocated, telling him we could never have done as much as he’s done for South Africa.”

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