Nelson Mandela was a man of many words, dozens of which were profound and predictive on levels that seemed unimaginable when uttered. He led a life that defined both revolution and collaboration on levels that will always be seen as the ideal, but most often these tenets never find the just the right figure to personify them. And that is what he was: a diversely precise figure to stand in, and stand up, in unimaginably desperate times.
Sports would seem trivial in the big picture of the dealings that Mandela stood for over his 95 years, which came to an end yesterday afternoon in the land that he fought so relentlessly to unify. However, in his own view of how to bring the people of his diverse yet staunchly segregated country together, sporting competition played a vital role. It was a uniquely shared interest that brought together the disjointed people of the country, people that otherwise never would share the beginnings of the common grounds they now can share.
For Mandela himself, it was boxing — a sport that embodied the shared discipline and force that carried him through his life. For his greater purpose, it was rugby that made the biggest difference in the direction of his country. The 1995 World Cup provided a turning point that was far bigger than just the tournament that it seemed at face level. Rather, it was a symbolic face-off of everything that had weighed so heavily on not just the nation of South Africa, but in many segregated recesses of the world. It was the proletariat versus the bourgeois: a white-dominated sport hosted in a nation in the midst of its first reign under the watch of a black man. Regardless of his stature, tensions were high. The South African team was nearly completely white, its opponents finishing the consensus. Blacks saw them as a sign of the majority oppression of the nation, what had continually oppressed them on the grandest stage the nation could provide.
Yet, in the clutch of circumstance, Mandela used it has a bonding experience that could not be replicated. He donned the jersey of the divisive team and single-handledly brought half of the country towards the other. He used sports as tool to make the masses one.
That is the beautiful tool that sports is. It can more seamlessly transcend recreation to civil tool than anything else. Two people with nothing in common otherwise can be brought under an umbrella of a shared hat, jersey or passing conversation about their shared passion of a team, then depart back to worlds as different as those days that Mandela united back in 1995 — and symbolized decades before.
What people who do not either love or participate with sports do not get is the empowering portion of it. It is so much more than just a game. It is a mentality-changing, lifestyle-shaping and bonding point that can be achieved just as easily by watching together as it is by playing. It is a real-life drama that creates dignity, shared culture and grows with its inhabitants in a way that only family can rival. It constantly pushes participants to reach for a greater height and fans to hope for it to be reached. Nothing inspires hope in quite that way, and it is why it transcends recreation and morphs into much, much more.
In the same fashion as family, it grows along with you and expands along the way. Some of the people you pick up are the same as you, but much of that extended family will be nothing like you — and that’s okay. Because what sports embodies is essentially the gist of the ideal human experience: to bring cohesion among natural rivals and a chance to hold out for a shared belief and optimism. In the ways that Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens and Mandela all channeled true civil change through it, the striving points of creating culturally diverse competition can without a shadow of doubt uplift an ideal greater than just who wins or loses.
Mandela put it best when he said, “Sports has the ability to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.” Anything that brings us together under a common bond gives us a chance to do more together than we ever aspired to do before — whether it’s drinking a beer with an enemy or breaking down the walls of Apartheid.