Sports can be a diversion. Sports can be a hobby. And, for a fortunate few, sports can change the world.
Nelson Mandela, the legendary South African activist and politician who died Thursday at 95, stands as one of the 20th century's most notable figures for his efforts to end apartheid. And while he used a combination of methods to dismantle South Africa's system of institutionalized racism, sports ranked high on the list. Mandela realized the transformative and unifying power of sports, and used that power to make changes that protests and diplomacy could not.
Mandela was a driven athlete, an amateur boxer who ran two hours every morning as a young man. He kept himself in excellent shape during his 27 years in prison. But it was a sport to which he had little attachment which would change his life and cement his legacy.
The key moment in Mandela's sporting life, as John Carlin of Sports Illustrated noted, was the 1995 Rugby World Cup in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mandela had been sworn in as president of South Africa only the year before, the nation's first black president, and there were plenty of heavily armed whites who were none too pleased with the tides that had changed their entire existence. The possibility of rioting, or worse, loomed large over the match between South Africa and New Zealand. As Mandela would say later, it was the most nervous he'd ever been in his life, even more so than the morning in 1962 where a captured Mandela would be sentenced to either life in prison or death by hanging.
Mandela had threaded a needle in the dark. In 1992, South Africa had been awarded the Rugby World Cup, and Mandela allowed the competition to proceed, even though rugby was a decidedly white-leaning sport. The South African national team, the Springboks, had only one nonwhite player, and blacks hated the team for many reasons, seeing their green jerseys as symbols of apartheid repression.
But Mandela convinced the nation to pull together as one and root for the Springboks, in part because of one astonishingly brave gesture: before a crowd of 65,000 that was almost completely white, Mandela strode onto the field wearing a Springboks jersey. The crowd, silent at first, began chanting "Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!"
South Africa would go on to win the game, and South Africans both black and white celebrated the victory. Mandela had not just passed a test, he'd rewritten it ... and in so doing, created a new, more hopeful future for his nation.
“Sport has the power to change the world,” Mandela said. “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 government in breaking down racial barriers.”