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.
Years earlier, sports helped spark social change movements that ended de facto apartheid in the United States, and though the fight for racial harmony was a long one — it began years before Jack Johnson and ended, if it has, years after Jackie Robinson — it was one Mandela continued in his own country.
Two decades later, South Africa is still fighting to put apartheid fully behind it, but Mandela is still using sports to create change. The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund started a “Sport for Good” program to promote social justice and to increase participation in sports among Africa’s youth — particularly in South Africa’s still underrepresented black communities. And around the world, sports organizations continue to do the same. The International Olympic Committee, for instance, pressured Saudi Arabia to send female athletes to the Olympics for the first time in history as part of its push to break down barriers for women in it and other countries.
“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.” Sometimes the games we play are just the games we play. But as Mandela’s past reminds us, sometimes they are so much more.