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.
Sepp Blatter has a horrible record on every conceivable issue of human rights and social justice, not the least of which is confronting the growing racism in international soccer. Despite the presence of racist fan clubs, fascist-saluting players and athletes of color who walk off the field in protest, Blatter has for years maintained a studied silence. When he finally did start to speak out, he said bigotry could be cured with a handshake, saying, “There is no racism, there is maybe one of the players towards another, he has a word or a gesture which is not the correct one, but also the one who is affected by that. He should say that this is a game. We are in a game, and at the end of the game, we shake hands, and this can happen.” Blatter also has maintained silence about Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian national soccer team, though the Palestinian cause was something that Mandela believed in deeply throughout his life.
We need to ask how a man like Mandela could actually be friends with a reptile like Blatter. The answer lies once again in Mandela’s uses of sports. Just as he saw it as a tool of resistance and a tool of reconciliation, he saw winning the 2010 World Cup as a way to rebrand his country as a regional power and further open it up for neoliberal investment. I visited South Africa before the 2010 World Cup and with my own eyes saw massive “zones” around the stadiums where the poor—invariably black—could not venture. I met street vendors who had their stalls taken down because they were not branded by FIFA as “official.” I met public workers who would be among the 1.3 million who would be going on strike when the Olympics ended. I met human rights activists fearful about the expansion of police powers, with officers patrolling poor neighborhoods and harassing the social movements to ensure their docility during the Cup. I spoke to so many who said variations of, “We have moved form racial apartheid to a system of economic apartheid.” Opening the country to foreign investment is a goal of every government, but as Mandela knew all too well, multnationals would not come to Jo-burg without wanting a pound of flesh in return.
There are two traditions in sports, one is the tradition of Muhammad Ali and the other is the tradition of Sepp Blatter. One is the tradition of joy and personal liberation. The other is the tradition of neoliberal plunder. Nelson Mandela was comfortable traversing on both sides of this tradition. He believed, we should have no doubt, that he had no choice but to play both sides for the greater good. Whether this approach achieved a “greater good” demands serious discussion, not just so we can understand the past but so we can strategize for a more just future.
Ilyse Hogue looks at Mandela’s support of feminism.