Sport,Nelson Mandela’s vehicle for change

Stars mourn the passing of Mandela,for whom sport wasn't just a game.

Written by Associated Press | Sun City | Published: December 7, 2013 3:04 am

When it came to sport,Nelson Mandela had the ability to inspire even inspirational figures and leave global stars completely star-struck. Mandela’s death on Thursday at the age of 95 prompted a vast outpouring of tributes from the world’s best-known athletes and top sporting bodies. Muhammad Ali said Mandela inspired others to “reach for what appeared to be impossible.”

“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,” Ali said in a statement through his foundation.

Pele wrote,“He was my hero,my friend.” Tiger Woods called his meeting with Mandela in 1998 “inspiring times.” “It’s sad for everyone who got a chance to not only meet him,but I’ve been influenced by him,” Woods said.

Usain Bolt tweeted: “One of the greatest human beings ever.” The NBA’s LeBron James said: “In his 95 years,he was able to do unbelievable things not only for South Africa but for the whole world.” Mandela loved sport and appreciated its enormous potential to do good. Nowhere more than in his own country,where he famously used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to knock down the last barriers of apartheid.

“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. The IOC would fly the Olympic flag at half-staff for three days for Mandela. Bach later choked up while speaking about when he met Mandela in 1996 and asked the former political prisoner if he felt hatred toward the apartheid regime that imprisoned him for 27 years. “His immediate response was ‘no’ but he saw the doubt in my eyes,” Bach said. “You don’t believe me?” he asked. “I can tell you why. If I hate I would not be a free man anymore.” Bach wasn’t the only one to show his emotions. 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.

Playing days

A keen amateur boxer and runner in his youth,sport was never far from Mandela’s mind. He was there,often the driving force,when South Africa returned to the Olympic family,won rugby’s World Cup,won football’s African Cup and earned the right to host FIFA’s World Cup in 2010,the first in Africa. It was fitting that Mandela’s last appearance for an adoring public was when he greeted fans in a packed stadium on the outskirts of Soweto ahead of the 2010 World Cup final.

A string of Spain’s World Cup winners from that year and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo all tweeted messages of condolence,with many including photographs of themselves with Mandela. Global superstars Woods and David Beckham both made a point of meeting him when they traveled to South Africa.

Recalling his first conversation with a still imprisoned Mandela in 1986 former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser said Mandela’s first question was about cricket. “His first remark to me,after hello,was … Mr. Fraser,is Donald Bradman still alive?”

What Mandela did at that 1995 Rugby World Cup final is one of sport’s defining moments and enshrined in the new South Africa’s conscience.

By pulling on the green and gold jersey of the Springboks,the national team previously all-white and associated with the apartheid regime,Mandela signaled to all South Africans that they should unite. His presentation of the trophy to the Springboks’ blond captain Francois Pienaar provided a lasting image of reconciliation that politics just couldn’t match.

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