Nelson Mandela used power of sport to unify, rebuild South Africa
Mandela is widely recognized for his involvement in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. He was among the first global leaders to understand the potential of sport in generating social change and firmly backed international boycotts of South African teams at international sports events during his prison days.
South Africa was banned from the Olympic Games from 1964 to 1992, as well as had various other suspensions by international sporting federations.
While in prison, he also supported the Makana Football Association, which used football as a symbol of hope and liberty in Robben Island prison in South Africa.
On 10 May, 1994, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president after three centuries of white domination. He used sports as a tool to get white and black people in South Africa to come together
Shortly after becoming President of South Africa, he attended a football match at the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg to see South Africa defeat Zambia. When asked why he chose to watch football, a sport favored by the black majority, instead of attending the inauguration parties as the new president of South Africa, Mandela responded: "I wanted to make sure our people know how much I appreciated the sacrifices made by our athletes during the many years of the boycott. I have no doubt I became president today sooner than I would have, had they not made those sacrifices."
A year later, at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final held at the same stadium, Mandela made a widely unimaginable gesture of reconciliation and nation-building. Rugby was the most popular sport among South Africa's white minority. For blacks, the mascot of the national rugby team, the springbok, was a symbol of tyranny. In fact, during his imprisonment, Mandela said that he always supported other countries to defeat his own.
When the tournament opened in Cape Town, about five miles from where Mandela was imprisoned, he told the players: "Our loyalties have completely changed. We have adopted these young men as our sons."
This got the whole nation to come together and support the team as one.
By 1995, apartheid had been replaced by full democracy, and although South Africa had only one black rugby player, the Springboks played under the slogan "One Team, One Country" at the World Cup.
A month later, South Africa defeated New Zealand in the final in Johannesburg. Mandela ignored the advice of many advisers and presented the award to Springboks captain Francois Pienaar, wearing the green shirt bearing Pienaar's number 6. A moment that shaped history and helped accelerate healing in a South African society torn apart by years of political dysfunction and inequality. On Mandela, the Springboks, an emblem of repression was transformed into something unifying and restorative.
Mandela famously said in 2000, at the inaugural Laureus World Sports Awards: "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."
Under Mandela's leadership, sport became an affirmation of possibility not just for South Africa but actually for the whole world. His authority led to the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The world's most-watched single-sport sporting event came to South Africa for a month and the world celebrated football and South Africa.
So the next time you are disappointed because your team didn't win, your favorite player didn't play well, or the season didn't bring much success, think about how sports made the world better, and maybe those disappointments too will seem less important.
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