Former South African president Nelson Mandela said, “Sport has the power to change the world.”
This may seem a preposterous statement when we look at the greed, corruption and division that often makes the headlines in the world of sport. We read of doping scandals, owners not taking responsibility for the safety of their players and athletes being blackballed for taking a stand on significant social issues.
Scholars and activists refer to sport as mere distraction, something to draw people away from the significant issues of the day.
Are these things inherent to sport or are they a manifestation of people simply forgetting the true essence of athleticism?
As William Shakespeare said, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”
What then is the essence that Mandela was speaking of?
We need to look at how Mandela used sport to change his country.
In 1994, Mandela became the first black president of a country that was deeply divided along racial lines. For generations, white South Africans lived in wealth while black South Africans lived in poverty, without a say in the governing of their country. The wielding of unjust power left deep wounds of division and resentment in the hearts and minds of the majority of the population.
Rugby was the sport of the white South Africans and they loved their national team, the Springboks. The rest of the country loved cheering for their failure.
When Mandela took power, he knew that he had to send a clear message to his white minority and to the rest of the population that the new South Africa was one nation, one people. The upcoming 1995 Rugby World Cup, hosted by South Africa, was the perfect opportunity.
As president, Mandela reached out to white South Africans with a hand of friendship and support, despite the fact that he had been imprisoned for 27 years by their state. He called on non-white South Africans to do the same. And he called on the predominantly white rugby team to reach out to the black population.
In the end, he gave all South Africans an event that they could celebrate together. The underdog Springboks defeated the mighty All Blacks of New Zealand to win the 1995 World Cup, in what many believe is the most significant rugby match in history.
Sports are about much more than winning. It’s in this striving to win, however, that we learn to draw on our greatest potential and to work together with people we may not normally associate with.
I recall talking about the history of integration in sports with my class when one of my student-athletes asked, “Doesn’t it just make sense? Wouldn’t they want to just put the best players available on the team?”
Indeed, when does segregation ever really make sense?
Sports have a very special way of bringing people together and we see many organizations using it as a means of education and community building. One such organization is Peace Players, which focuses primarily on basketball to bring young people together in polarized American cities, the Middle East and many other parts of the world.
In the summer of 2015, Villanova University men’s basketball coach Jay Wright joined a Peace Players mission to Israel. In many ways, the divisions between Israelis and Palestinians are not unlike those in South Africa during Mandela’s lifetime. Yet Wright observed these barriers break down between the young players on the court. The success of the team even began to bring the parents together.
Sport has the power to inspire and unite, to draw out the best in individuals and the best in humanity. These are lofty ideals, but they’re also very human ideals.
And they’re ideals that are well within the grasp of every one of us.