A leader who built bridges with sport

Sports he­roes pay trib­ute to the great­est of all

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NELSON MANDELA 1918-2013 - GER­ALD IM­RAY

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.’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.