“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.”
This is a man who understood sport. He loved it, and he was good at it. As a young man Nelson Mandela ran two hours every morning. He was an amateur boxer and gifted athlete. During the early years of his incarceration he wasn’t allowed newspapers so his wife, Winnie, had to relay all the latest boxing news. But it was a sport to which he had little affinity that changed the world.
It was June 24, 1995. The Rugby World Cup final. It couldn’t have been scripted better.
Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, stepped onto the field wearing a cap and the colours of the Springboks, a long-sleeve green and gold jersey – buttoned up and hanging loose. Emblazoned on the back was a gold No.6.
Within two strides, the noise in the Ellis Park stadium erupted, it could have been the whole of Johannesburg chanting that day, but it was 65,000 white South Africans – “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!’
The fact that few blacks were in the packed stadium was a reflection of the nation itself. The Springboks were the property of the white Afrikaners. The blacks despised them and all they represented. Mandela’s simple gesture – the wearing of the jersey, helped so much towards reconciling a broken nation.
Of course the match went into extra-time. Of course South Africa won. Of course it was against the odds. Mandela handed the world cup trophy over to a jubilant South African captain.
“He said to me ‘Thank you for what you have done for South Africa,’” Francois Pienaar recalled. “I said to him, ‘No, Madiba, you’ve got it wrong. Thank you for what you’ve done for South Africa.’ And I felt like hugging him. I really felt like giving him a big hug, but it wasn’t protocol … and that just gave me shivers down my spine.”
The moment has been immortalised by the Clint Eastwood film ‘Invictus’ (named after the poem Mandela recited nightly while imprisoned) with Morgan Freeman playing the president and 4 ft Matt Damon playing the hulking flanker.
Mandela had a far stronger connection to cricket. While still serving his sentence in prison his opening line on meeting former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was a beautiful ice-breaker. “Mr Fraser, is Don Bradman still alive?”
It seems fitting that later on, Mr Fraser gave Mandela a present – a cricket bat inscribed by The Don. “To Nelson Mandela in recognition of a great unfinished innings,” Bradman wrote. What perfect words.
Such was Mandela’s status all the major sports stars, boxers, golfers, cricketers, athletes all wanted to rub shoulders with him and soak up his incredible aura.
“Allow me to introduce myself to you,” Mandela joked to then-England soccer captain Beckham when they met in 2003. It was Beckham who was star-struck.
Mandela played no small part in helping South Africa win the right to host the 2010 soccer World Cup. Despite all the doubters the cup was a huge success and South Africa came out if it with universal praise.
This tournament would be one of Mandela’s last public appearances. He will be remembered for many things to many people. His understanding of the intricate nature of sport, its power and its hold on us is just another piece of his wisdom that should be acknowledged.
“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,” Mandela said.
And nowhere was that more apparent than on that magical day in 1995.