Over the past few years, there have been instances where Nelson Mandela’s declining health has led to concerns that he would at last leave us for good. He was able to get through those health issues and still press on.
Unfortunately, a time will come for all of us, and that time came for one of this world’s signature civil rights figures. Mandela was someone who personified courage, humanitarianism, and the idea that the status quo was indeed unacceptable.
As with many other iconic social figures, Mandela’s message was one that transcended international politics. His message reached many, not just in South Africa as the country’s President from 1994 to 1999, but those around the world who wanted to put an end to the abhorrent practice of apartheid.
Mandela’s message reached many, including those in the realms of entertainment and sports. In fact, being involved with the athletic development of his country was one of the biggest ways for “Madiba” to promote his positive words and actions of equality.
Mandela, of course, did not become a civil rights icon overnight. In fact, in his earlier years, idolized—of all people—Joe Louis. He was, at one point, an amateur boxer.
He was instrumental in the NBA’s international expansion, particularly that into South Africa. Several players from various parts of Africa, including Dikembe Mutumbo, served as ambassadors for the league’s efforts.
The 1995 Rugby World Cup was held in South Africa shortly after Mandela made history by becoming South Africa’s first black president of that country (as well as the ending of apartheid). It was only fitting that it was the first World Cup in that sport where every match was held in one country. There were two previous Cups before that in 1995—one in 1987 that was in Australia and New Zealand and one in 1991 that emanated from the United Kingdom and France.
The name of the South African Rugby team was called the Springboks. The final took place at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park, in which the Springboks were victorious over New Zealand 15-12. New Zealand had previously won the 1987 Cup and finished third in 1991, so the Springboks were facing tough and experienced competition. They wouldn’t disappoint the 63,000 home fans that filled Ellis Park Stadium.
Shortly after the match, Mandela was wearing a Springboks shirt and presented the William Webb Ellis Cup, The Rugby World Cup’s trophy to Francois Piennar, the captain of the South African team. The story of the Springboks and the 1995 Rugby World Cup has since made its way to the big screen. In 2009, Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon played Mandela and Piennar, respectively, in the film Invictus that was directed by Clint Eastwood.
Every year at the ESPYs, one of its highest honors it awards is the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. Mandela was presented this award at the 2009 ESPYs for working to unite South Africa through sports. There’s a stark connection between Ashe and Mandela as Ray Moore, a former tennis player from South Africa who currently resides in the Los Angeles suburb of Rancho Mirage, told KPTR-AM 1450 that he introduced Ashe to Mandela.
In addition these connections between Mandela and sports, his presence was also felt throughout the duration of the last FIFA World Cup in 2010 in South Africa—the first to ever take place on the African continent. South Africa was one of five African bids for the 2010 World Cup along with competing efforts from Egypt, Morocco, and a joint bid between Libya and Tunisia.
Libya and Tunisia withdrew because FIFA did not permit joint bids, though the 2002 World Cup was held in Japan and South Korea. South Africa won with 14 votes. Morocco came in second with 10 and Egypt had no votes.
It was not the first time that South Africa had put forth a bid for the World Cup. They competed for the 2006 Cup along with Morocco, England, and eventual hosts Germany, which narrowly beat South Africa in the final vote 12-11.
When South Africa was announced as the host nation for the 2010 World Cup, Mandela celebrated with the rest of the South African delegation by holding up the FIFA World Cup trophy. When the Cup occurred in 2010, one could not help but feel that his presence was all over that tournament.
The World Cup Finals took place in “Soccer City” in Johannesburg—in the same stadium where Mandela made his first speech after being released from prison. Ellis Park Stadium was another one of the 12 stadia used for the tournament. One of the new stadia that was to be built was called Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, a 48,000+ stadium in Port Elizabeth, South Africa along the country’s southern coastline that broke ground in 2007. Mandela and his wife attended the World Cup final that year, much to the delight of the 85,000 that were in Johannesburg that day on July 11th, 2010.
Already with news of his passing, the remembrances are pouring in.
“When he was honored and cheered by the crowd at Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium on July 11th, 2010, 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 received.” –FIFA President Sepp Blatter
“Heaven’s newest angel. Nelson Mandela: visionary, warrior, groundbreaker…unifier for peace. Thnx for paving the way” –@sj39 (Steven Jackson)
“You will always be in my heart Mr. Mandela.” –@TigerWoods
“He was brilliant. Courageous. Strong. Resilient. One of the greatest men this world has been blessed by.” –@StuartScott
“ ‘A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination’ Nelson Mandela” –@NastiaLiukin
“Haven’t turned tv on all day til 5pm to watch the news and shocked that Nelson Mandela has passed. What a Man!!!! Sad to hear the news but thankful how he touched the world.” –Misty May-Treanor via Facebook
“Thank you, My Lord, for giving us Nelson Mandela. Rest in eternal peace!” –@StephenASmith
“RIP Nelson Mandela” –@LindseyVonn
“An inspiration to all of us. RIP Nelson Mandela. Thank you for everything you have done!” –@Persie_Official (Robin Van Persie)
“Rest In Peace Nelson Mandela. We will never forget the role you played in our country, in our sport, and for that we are eternally grateful.” –@bokrugby (South African Rugby)
Sports is an important part of our culture because of individuals like Nelson Mandela. Although it may seem unimportant at times in the grand scheme of things, look at Carl Lewis, Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, and countless others who put their statuses as important sports figures to the use of the greater good.
Throughout all of the hardships and injustices Mandela faced in his life, sports played his major role in his struggle to bring a country out of apartheid.
And to unite a nation, and a people, behind a message of equality.
Rest in Peace, Nelson Mandela. The world will sorely miss you.