Nelson Mandela was one of the greatest statesmen in history.
The former South African president was a peripheral sports figure who understood the perspective and impact of sports on culture. That sense of purpose pushed him from the periphery to the center of the best that sports can offer.
As portrayed in the movie “Invictus,” he used his respect for people’s devotion to sports and loyalty to athletic teams to help change his country and the world. His support of an all-white South African rugby team (initially despised by blacks and a source of division in that country) in its quest toward a World Cup victory, was a primary change agent.
It was one of the most emotional and defining moments of sports and culture in 100 years.
By pulling on the green and gold jersey of the Springboks the national team previously all-white and associated with the apartheid regime after its upset victory in front of a home crowd in Sowato, Mandela signaled to all South Africans that they should unite. His presentation of the trophy to the Springboks’ blond captain Francois Pienaar (played by Matt Damon in the movie) furnished an iconic image of reconciliation that politics just couldn’t match.
After 1995, Mandela commonly referred to the team that had previously been boycotted abroad for its associations with apartheid as “my beloved Springboks.”
He knew sports, in itself, could not change the world, but the passions that are a byproduct of sports, can form bridges on the way to unifying people of different cultures and beliefs.
It’s no accident that baseball, clearly our national pastime at the time, was a primary agent of integration in this country.
The Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis match in the 1970s, simply a well-hyped sporting event, led the a new conversation about gender equity in America and laid the foundation for Title IX, which changed sports and society.
Mandela had a special ability to inspire and leave even high-profile folks star-struck.
The greatest of our athletes admired him because he represent a bedrock ideal in athletics — the ability to dream and to achieve beyond what is thought possible. He understood that from a basis of grace and respect.
Note the tributes as related to The Associated Press:
“I got a chance to meet him with my father back in ‘98. He invited us to his home, and it was one of the inspiring times I’ve ever had in my life,” said Tiger Woods.
“What I will remember most about Mr. Mandela is that he was a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge,” Muhammad Ali said in a statement through his foundation.
From Labron James: “In his 95 years, he was able to do unbelievable things not only for South Africa but for the whole world. What he meant to this world while he was able to be here is everything.”
Sprinter Usain Bolt tweeted, “One of the greatest human beings ever ...”The world’s greatest fighter,”
Brazilian World Cup winner Pele wrote, “He was my hero, my friend.”
“A remarkable man who understood that sport could build bridges, break down walls, and reveal our common humanity,” International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said in a statement to The Associated Press.
South African golfer Gary Player paused while speaking at a golf tournament in South Africa to compose himself and wipe away tears, “When you think of a man going to jail for all those years for doing the right thing, not the wrong thing, it’s hard to comprehend that a man can come out and be like that,” Player said. “He was an exceptional man, just exceptional.”
Mandela’s last public appearance was when he greeted fans in a packed stadium on the outskirts of Soweto ahead of the 2010 World Cup final.
He was cheered, not just from voices but from hearts.
South African golfer Ernie Els said that from around 1996 onwards Mandela would call him every time he won a tournament and they once exchanged gifts after Mandela visited him at a tournament near the former president’s Johannesburg home.
“I’ve still got that picture in my office in the U.S.,” Els said.
Even for New Zealand’s losing rugby captain on that famous June day in 1995, Sean Fitzpatrick, Mandela’s effect was too momentous not to appreciate.
“Afterwards, when we were driving back to our hotel crying, to see the sheer enjoyment of everyone running down the streets ... black, white, colored, whatever they were, just arm in arm celebrating sport,” Fitzpatrick said. “He saw the bigger picture.”
We need more big-picture people, both in sports and society.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or email@example.com or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)