A leader who built bridges with sport
Sports heroes pay tribute to the greatest of all
WHEN it came to sport, Nelson Mandela had the ability to inspire even inspirational figures and leave global stars completely star-struck.
When he died on Thursday, Madida prompted a vast outpouring of tributes from the world’s best- known athletes and sporting bodies.
Former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, himself a role model for so many, said Mandela inspired others to “reach for the 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.
Football star Pele wrote: “He was my hero, my friend.”
Golfer Tiger Woods called his meeting with Mandela in 1998 “inspiring times”.
Athlete Usain Bolt posted on Twitter: “One of the greatest human beings ever.”
Basketballer LeBron James said: “In his 95 years, he was able to do unbelievable things not only for South Africa but for the whole world.”
As much as sportsmen and women loved Mandela, he in turn 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.
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said he was “a remarkable man who understood that sport could build bridges, break down walls and reveal our common humanity”.
Bach later choked up when recalling meeting Mandela in 1996 and asking 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 yesterday. “‘You don’t believe me?’ he asked. ‘I can tell you why. If I hated I would not be a free man any more’.” 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.
Sepp Blatter, chief of football association Fifa said he and world football were in mourning at Mandela’s passing and ordered that the 209 flags at Fifa headquarters in Zurich be flown at half-staff.
He described him as “probably one of the greatest humanists of our time and a dear friend of mine”.
From a cricket Test in Australia to basketball games in the US and a golf tournament in the South African wilderness, Mandela was remembered with a moment of silence.
A keen amateur boxer and runner in his youth, Mandela understood the intricacies of rugby, football and cricket, but even games and players South Africans wouldn’t have been familiar with were touched by him.
“Nelson Mandela was one of the most powerful and inspirational leaders in the world and a great friend of the NBA,” league commissioner David Stern said.
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 in 1995, won football’s African Cup of Nations a year later and earned the right to host Fifa’s World Cup in 2010. It was fitting that Mandela’s last appearance for an adoring public was when he greeted fans in a packed stadium near Soweto ahead of the 2010 World Cup final.
“When he was honoured and cheered by the crowd … it was as a man of the people, a man of their hearts, and it was one of the most moving moments I have ever experienced,” Blatter said.
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.
“We have lost a true gentleman and a courageous human being,” Beckham said on his Facebook page. “It was truly an honour to have known a man who had genuine love for so many people.”
Golfer Ernie Els said that from around 1996 onwards Mandela would call him every time he won a tournament and they once exchanged gifts.
“I’ve still got that picture in my office in the US,” Els said.
But Mandela’s interest in sport wasn’t just for the grand occasion and the photo opportunity.
Recalling his first conversation with a still imprisoned Mandela in 1986 and away from the media spotlight, former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser said Mandela’s first question was about cricket and the man regarded as that sport’s greatest player.
“His first remark to me, after hello, was … ‘Mr Fraser, is Donald Bradman still alive?’”
Fraser later brought him a bat signed by Bradman. Cricket’s finest batsman had written “in recognition of a great unfinished innings” for Mandela on the bat.
And what Mandela did at that 1995 Rugby World Cup final is one of sport’s defining moments.
By pulling on the green and gold jersey of the Springboks, Mandela signalled to all South Africans that they should unite. His presentation of the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar provided a lasting image of reconciliation that politics just couldn’t match.
“It was our privilege to have lived in this country during his lifetime,” South African Rugby Union president Oregan Hoskins said. After 1995, Mandela commonly referred to the team that had previously been boycotted abroad for its associations with apartheid as “my beloved Springboks”.
Current Bok captain Jean de Villiers said: “His presence at a Test match just lifted the crowd and energised the team.”
Even for New Zealand’s losing rugby captain on that famous June day in 1995, Sean Fitzpatrick, Mandela’s effect was momentous.
“Afterwards, when we were driving back to our hotel crying, to see the sheer enjoyment of everyone running down the streets… black, white, coloured, whatever they were, just arm in arm celebrating sport,” he said. – Sapa-AP
ON THE BALL: Mandela and Fifa president Sepp Blatter chat about the ups and downs of soccer.
IMPOSSIBLE MISSION: Muhammad Ali said Mandela inspired others to ‘reach for what appeared to be impossible’.
INSPIRED: Tiger Woods said meeting Mandela was ‘inspiring’.
GREAT RACE: Usain Bolt said Mandela was ‘one of the greatest human beings ever.’