The late Nelson Mandela is being celebrated and remembered by billions across the world, remembered as a champion of underdogs and the oppressed. But when it came to sports, Mandela was an avid supporter and fan. While in college as a young man, he was an amateur boxer who idolized the late heavyweight great Joe Louis. Mandela would later become a skilled, synchronized swimmer and soccer player. And during his reign as the first black president of South Africa, he used sporting events to unite the South African people. Portrayed in the 2009 film Invictus, starred Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, Mandela transcended wisdom, using the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unite his nation.
Considered a white man's sport, Rugby was seen as a symbol of the oppressive racist, apartheid regime, while simultaneously being a digression from the oppression of the people. Mandela, being the visionary he was, used the unique love and hate factors of Rugby, to unify. One of many shining moments came when 65,000 white South Africans cheered Mandela as he stood clad in a rugby jersey, waving his hands high. "Sport has the power to change the world…the power to inspire," he once said. "It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does."
The South African national team, an underdog in that tournament, went on to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. And in 2010, Mandela played a critical role in bringing the World Cup to Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium, making it the first time the tournament had ever been held on the continent. And his last public appearance.
Today, the world of sports mourns the loss of a champion of human rights, an individual who enjoyed watching and supporting victors of athletic competition. He understood its power to unite, motivate, and inspire. His loss brings an outpouring of condolences and tributes from across the sporting spectrum, from Lebron James to soccer great Pele'.
"In his 95 years, he was able to do unbelievable things not only for South Africa but for the whole world. What he meant to this world while he was able to be here is everything." – Lebron James
"It's sad for everyone who got a chance to not only meet him, but I've been influenced by him. I got a chance to meet him with my father back in `98. He invited us to his home, and it was one of the inspiring times I've ever had in my life." – Tiger Woods
"What I will remember most about Mr. Mandela is that he was a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge. He taught us forgiveness on a grand scale.'' – Muhammad Ali
"The thing that I remember about him the most is, I can't believe how forgiving he was. We get so mad and angry at people over silly stuff in this country all of the time. For him to have compassion for his jailers and not have any animosity-I ain't gonna lie. I'd be mad forever. But for him to have compassion for his jailers and unite South Africa…words don't do it justice."- Charles Barkley
"President Mandela is one of the most important historical figures of the past century and his sheer will to create a world of hope will remain a long-standing inspiration. We mourn his passing and celebrate his spirit."- Keith Clinkscales, President and CEO of The Shadow League
— Evander Holyfield (@holyfield) December 5, 2013
Today, I am very saddened. Nelson Mandela was one of the most influential people in my life. pic.twitter.com/zzixsqm1Af
— Pelé (@Pele) December 5, 2013
— Larry Fitzgerald (@LarryFitzgerald) December 5, 2013