There has never been a political leader who understood the power of sports quite like Nelson Mandela. Mandela’s relationship to the sports world defies easy characterizations, although the sports media have certainly tried their darnedest. Sports Illustrated has a twenty-four-frame slideshow that attempts to highlight his connection to sports, where Mandela looks so angelic, you wonder why they didn’t just photoshop a halo and some wings.
The slideshow highlights events such as Mandela’s embrace of Francois Pienaar after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, immortalized in the film Invictus. They show him raising the FIFA World Cup Trophy after learning that South Africa would host the 2010 games. They display this political giant posing happily with political and moral Lilliputians like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tiger Woods and Don King.
The photo shoot ends with Mandela’s last public appearance, smiling and waving, being driven out onto the field during the 2010 World Cup. Mandela truly lived and believed his own words: “Sport has the power to change the world 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.”
Yet the Sports Illustrated slideshow, as well as that quote, articulates only a part of the story. Like so many of the Mandela tributes, they just tell the tale of the great conciliator, the man with the beatific smile who went to prison for twenty-seven years and emerged believing that “people learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”
There was another Mandela whose political relationship to the sports world was far more controversial and confrontational. From behind those unforgiving bars on Robben Island prison, Mandela supported the exclusion of South Africa’s whites-only teams from international competition. He rejoiced when South Africa’s vaunted national rugby union squad Springbok took the field in New Zealand, only to be protested at every turn. This included at one match seeing 350 protesters pull down a section of stadium fence and occupying the pitch.
Mandela strongly believed in the movement of black Americans such as John Carlos, Lee Evans and Tommie Smith to organize a boycott of the 1968 Olympics in protest of the International Olympic Committee’s decision to readmit apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia to the games. While behind bars, the former amateur boxer also avidly followed the battles inside and outside the ring of Muhammad Ali, even making sure his pipeline to the outside included news about the boxer’s exploits. As he said, “Ali’s struggle made him an international hero. His stand against racism and war could not be kept outside the prison walls.”
The move by Mandela from resistance to reconciliation in politics following his release from prison can also be seen in the sports world tributes after his death. The most telling testimonial was from FIFA leader Sepp Blatter. Blatter said he and Mandela ”shared an unwavering belief in the extraordinary power of football to unite people in peace and friendship.” He called Mandela a “dear friend” and ”probably one of the greatest humanists of our time” and ordered the flags at FIFA’s headquarters to be flown at half mast as well as calling for a minute’s silence before the next round of international matches.