Mandela and Sport

A personal reflection

The greatest man of my lifetime has passed.

I knew his name in the 70’s and 80’s, as the UK ‘Red Wedge’ activists continually raised “Free Nelson Mandela” alongside saving coal miners and hatred of Thatcher.  I despised apartheid and remember arguing with cricket team mates about the importance of sporting sanctions, but I have always been suspicious of the “Big Man” theory of political change.

Frank Hardy’s ‘Power Without Glory’ had convinced me of Balzac’s maxim that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  It was not politics that started to change my views about Mandela, but music.  The 80’s was the era of the all-star benefit concert for AIDS or African famine, or whatever the worthy cause of the day.  I watched them all, and most were entertaining, but there was an overriding sense of celebrity and rock stars’ ‘look at me’.

The 1988 Wembley Stadium concert to celebrate the 70th birthday of the still imprisoned Mandela was different.  I remember being moved by Sting’s gorgeous ‘We Dance Alone’ about the ‘disappeared’ of Pinochet’s Chile, accompanied by Branford Marsalis’ wounded clarinet solo.  Then the long joyous chant of Jerry Dammers leading the mass chorus of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’.  I love brass and ska, and it was impossible not to join in with the Wembley crowd.  They were singing for a cause and a man; not just for a tune or a ‘star’.   This was a cause to support and not just passively observe.

Then the 1990 release of Mandela from 27 years of jail, by another brave man in FW De Klerk.   Again with me watching the TV screen as a dignified Mandela in suit and tie, walked slowly down a road, waving gently to the adoring throng that parted before him.  I remember feeling the sense of Jesus on a donkey returning to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

And that is what separates Mandela for me from the other great men and women of the last century.  There were great orators who made great change to our world, like Churchill or Whitlam or Kennedy.  But they all caste shadows alongside the light that they shone.

Mandela had no shadow.  He was the embodiment of light and forgiveness and generosity and compassion.  His presence; his eyes; his smile; his easy laughter and gentle wave – often spoke more eloquently than his words.

mandela forgiveness

When I wonder what it would have been like to have known Jesus; St Paul; Buddha or Lincoln: I think of Mandela.  Goodness beyond greatness.

In the 80’s I was sure that freedom could only come to South Africa through murderous civil war of the sort that we saw in Rwanda or  in Syria today.  That it did not may seem inevitable now, but it was a miracle to those of us who witnessed the oppression and cruelty of apartheid.  That miracle is testament to one man’s wisdom and generosity of spirit.



Mandela and Sport

Like Jesus, Paul, Buddha and Lincoln – Mandela was no purist aesthete.   He retained a sense of what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” even when his advisers urged revenge or short term advantage.

Like Paul the tentmaker preaching in the market square, Mandela had a keen ear for the messages that drew the crowd in and retained their attention.  Sport was a part of his own upbringing, and I hope it is not sacrilegious to say that (like the Almanac) he used sport as a prism and a mirror to shine a light that everyman could see onto what was important; but often ignored or neglected.

Sport has the power to change the world,” Mandela once said. “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.”

mandela boxing  mandela young boxing sparring  mandela young boxing

Mandela’s first sporting experience was as a boxer and a runner.  In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, he wrote:

“Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, colour, and wealth are irrelevant…I never did any real fighting after I entered politics. My main interest was in training; I found the rigorous exercise to be an excellent outlet for tension and stress. After a strenuous workout, I felt both mentally and physically lighter. It was a way of losing myself in something that was not the struggle. After an evening’s workout I would wake up the next morning feeling strong and refreshed, ready to take up the fight again.”

mandela ali

The American sportswriter Sam Riches, anticipating Mandela’s mortality a few months ago wrote in Salon that:

“When we lose Mandela, a loss that will reverberate globally, boxing will lose one of its most important and powerful proponents. One of history’s great fighters, he lent a richness to the sport simply by his association with it. His kinship with and closeness to boxing’s central struggle defined him, and ennobled the sport by projecting its hard, simple binaries outward into the world.

Mandela’s name will never reach that third and final stage of death; his legacy is too salient, too pervasive and too defiant and too strong. Boxing is in trouble, as it often is; it’s a business and a sport. Fighting, as Mandela defined, understood and exemplified it, is a bigger thing, and forever.”

Mandela older boxer  mandela lennox lewis

Writing on USA Today, Charles Korr gave an insight into both the personal and societal significance of soccer in Mandela’s life:

“Mandela grew up in an English school tradition which assumed that sports teaches values, builds character, shows you how to work hard and play together.

Sport was a part of his life even during his time as a political prisoner in the brutal conditions of Robben Island, where he helped to organize a limited sports program in the isolation section. He and other isolation prisoners became fans of the prison soccer teams that played weekly matches in the general section of the prison. The response of the authorities was to build a wall to ensure that Mandela and others could not share in the pleasure of the soccer matches, even vicariously. Years later he referred to soccer on the Island as “more than a game. It can create hope where there was once despair … this game made us feel alive.”

With feelings like that, it was no surprise that Mandela worked hard to get South Africa involved in international sports. The rugby World Cup in 1995 was followed by the 1996 African Cup of nations in soccer and the 2003 Cricket World Cup. The ultimate triumphant moment for him was in 2010 when FIFA brought the crown jewel of international sports, the football (soccer) World Cup, to South Africa. Mandela had thrown himself into the bidding process years earlier, even though his health was declining.”

Mandela Rugby World Cup


The most public example of sport using Mandela, and Mandela using sport is the 1995 Rugby Union World Cup.  This is Travis Waldron on ‘Think Progress’ last year at the time of Mandela’s 94th birthday:

“Nelson Mandela had been an athlete for most of his life, but he had never played the game that would ultimately play a major role in saving the country he led out of apartheid and into democracy. With his nation immersed in racial tension and on the brink of civil war, and with white, army-trained men angry at the shift in the balance of power, Mandela — who is celebrating his 94th birthday today — embraced the South African national rugby team, a bastion of white society hated by blacks as a symbol of oppression and racism, before the country hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

The improbable embrace of the nation’s nearly all-white rugby team by its first black president, and the success the team found thereafter, created an even more improbable moment of racial unity that was unimaginable before the tournament began, as John Carlin detailed in 2008:

The Springboks beat France, Australia and others to reach the final against New Zealand, then the best team in the world. But the day’s crowning moment came before the game had even begun, when Mandela went out onto the field, before a crowd of 65,000 that was 95% white, wearing the green Springbok jersey, the old symbol of oppression, beloved of his apartheid jailers. There was a moment of jaw-dropping disbelief, a sharp collective intake of breath, and suddenly the crowd broke into a chant, which grew steadily louder, of “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!” […]

The whole country, black and white, sang and danced into the night, united for the first time in its history around one cause, one delirious celebration. There was no civil war, no right wing terrorism, and Mandela achieved his life’s goal of creating what remains still today, and would have seemed almost impossible then: a stable, multiracial democracy.”



Vale’ Nelson Mandela.  I shall not see his likes again.

Mandela Yankee Stadium 1990











  1. Yvette Wroby says

    Beautiful Peter. Here is the States I am avoiding all the newscasts that go overboard talking about it and just quietly, in my heart and mind, remember the wonderful man and leader. I feel blessed that in my life time I could watch from afar and remain hopeful about the human spirit and will. We need to all become a little Mandela, that way he lives on in our actions and hearts.


  2. Luke Reynolds says

    Absolutely superb Peter. A wonderful tribute to a great man. Thanks.

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Brilliant Peter The legacy and significance of , The Great Man will remain forever

  4. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Great tribute, PB. One of my favourite quotes from the great man: “Know your enemies and find out what their favourite sport is.”

  5. Thanks PB. Well played.

  6. Neil Anderson says

    I have been watching all the tributes to Mandela from around the world from highly respected leaders but who suddenly pale into insignificance along-side Mandela.
    But I particularly liked the words of Obama and even our own Malcolm Fraser.
    And now I have read your article Peter, putting it all into perspective by asking the question, ” I wonder what it would be like to meet Jesus, St Paul, Buddha or Lincoln?”
    Subconsciously you came up with some names to compare to the great man.
    Which reminds me, whenever anyone plays the game of ‘who would you most want as a dinner guest’, the answer is usually Mandela to be at the head of the table.

  7. Peter Fuller says

    Like Yvette, I’m as as far as possible avoiding all the fatuous tributes littering the media – a precise example of when words fail, By contrast, your superb piece, Peter, has said it better than anyone else could.
    When I’m attending a funeral, I often wish that the eulogy is sufficiently eloquent to match the value of the person being mourned/celebrated.So often it falls short. Also, I suppose one often has in mind the wry comment which PJ Flynn offered in his appreciation of his grandpa “he (the deceased) wasn’t like that, you know.”

    Mandela was everything that people are saying of him – and more. However PB you have provided the definitive obituary, captured the essence of his greatness. You demonstrate once more what all Almanackers fervently believe that sport is more than playing games.

  8. Great man, who I doubt in my lifetime I will ever see the likes of again.

  9. Keiran Croker says

    I’m immersed in the cricket over here in Adelaide so have missed much of the media coverage of Mandala’s death.
    I do not think I need to read further than this wonderful tribute from Peter.
    Well done!

  10. Peter Schumacher says

    For me, the legacy that Mandela left was one of forgiveness, not anger. I really do try to remember this in my own life when I feel slighted. As part of Mandela’s legacy, too, is the South African national anthem. Is there a better one?

  11. Shane Kennedy says

    A simple thank you Peter.

    I feel a little ashamed that I don’t know more about Mandela. I can see a future where children will be learning about him in history lessons, yet I was alive at the same time as him and don’t know nearly enough.

    I also sometimes find myself pulling back from pointing out lessons that can be learned from sport, particularly to my Grade 5 boys. But in sport, there are many opportunities to reflect on the importance of qualities such as forgiveness, compassion, humility, sacrifice and persistence, among many others.

    Thanks again Peter, a pleasure to read.

  12. Yes

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