Nelson Mandela used sports to help unite a country, but his interest was not simply political
The passing of Nelson Mandela has caused many to reflect on his use of sports to unite and inspire a divided nation. He once described athletics as more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers. The signature moment for me in this regard is the one that has been most often invoked: Mandela presenting the Rugby World Cup trophy to team captain Francois Pienaar after South Africa’s 1995 victory over New Zealand in Johannesburg— the culmination of an odyssey that was chronicled in John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy” and the film “Invictus,” as well as in this column several years ago.
Mandela’s engagement with sports, however, extended much deeper than that. He played a significant role in getting the 2003 Cricket World Cup and the 2010 FIFA World Cup to South Africa. FIFA representatives responsible for site selection for the 2010 soccer event made a visit to South Africa in 2004. They were told that, from Cape Town, they would be taken to Robben Island, where Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned. After the boat ride to the island, the officials were given a tour led by one of Mandela’s fellow prisoners. Near the end of the tour, they approached the 8-by-7-foot cell where Mandela had served his time. The tour leader opened the door to the cell, and there sat none other than Nelson Mandela himself, beaming that broad grin of his and saying, “Welcome! Welcome!” Can your host committee do that? Not surprisingly, FIFA selected South Africa to host the World Cup.