In February, we celebrated Black History Month for the first time without Nelson Mandela, who died in December at 93 in Johannesburg, having given most of his life to the liberation movements of southern Africa.
While many are aware of his activism, few fully understand his strong association with sports and his deeply held belief in sport’s ability to spur political and social change.
While delivering a speech in Monaco in 2000, Mr. Mandela said, “Sport has the power to change the world. 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.”
Decoupling sports from the struggle for the modern South African state is nearly impossible. Apartheid, the brutal system of racial segregation, was implemented in South Africa in 1948, in which the white minority government severely limited opportunities for the black majority population. State services were delineated along racial lines, and sports were no different. Under Apartheid, black and white athletes were prohibited from training together, and for the most part, playing against or with each other. Athletic facilities were clearly segregated along racial lines.
According to American historian Charles Korr, co-author of “More Than Just a Game”, Mr. Mandela understood the cultural significance of rugby, cricket, tennis and golf to the white minority and how isolation damaged the Apartheid regime’s sense of national identity. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, soccer’s governing body, suspended South Africa in 1963, and the International Olympic Committee, the IOC, withdrew the country’s invitation to participate in the 1964 Games in Tokyo before formally suspending it from the Olympic movement in 1970. The country would not be invited back to the Olympics for another 22 years.
The Olympics also provided a stage for an event that would cement Mr. Mandela’s understanding of sports as a lever for making political statements about injustice. It came at the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, ironically involving two Americans.
One of the most iconic images of the 20th century is the photo of Tommy Smith and John Carlos of the United States, raising their black-gloved fists in the air on the medal stand following their first and third place finishes in the 200-meter race. Mr. Smith would later describe his gesture as “The Black Pride Salute”, intended to draw world attention to the discrimination and inequality in 1960s America.
That picture was smuggled onto Robben Island, where Mr. Mandela was imprisoned, providing tacit confirmation on the effectiveness of using sport to disseminate a powerful message globally.
Following his release from prison in 1990, Mr. Mandela instantly became his country’s most marketable sports ambassador, a role he used for improving the sporting culture within his country and for fostering reconciliation through it.
In 1995 Mr. Mandela, now the president, skillfully used the Rugby World Cup to calcify his country’s fragile democracy, rallying the home team around a Springbok jersey, which previously represented the Apartheid system that caged him for nearly three decades. At that moment, the healing of a nation had officially begun.
Of course, Atlanta can attest that mega sporting events don’t always bring the public-relations boost that a city or country needs. The Centennial Olympic Games here in 1996 where beset by early technology and transportation problems that were dwarfed by a later bombing in the Olympic park that killed two people. The somber event cast a shadow over an Olympics otherwise remembered for great economic stewardship.
In 2010, South Africa was selected to host Africa’s first ever mega event: the FIFA World Cup. Although many wondered whether the country could pull it off, it went over with near flawless execution.
I was privileged to have been associated with the event, when I was asked set up Fan Parks with theater-sized viewing screens in eleven villages in Africa, to allow native Africans experience a feeling of participation in an event that may not grace their home soil again in the foreseeable future.
It was clear that Africans felt tremendous pride in hosting the tournament and that it was considered a more continental achievement, bigger than any single nation. It was not lost on any African that I encountered that attracting the World Cup was largely a Nelson Mandela lifetime achievement award. Without the significant currency of the Mandela brand, Africa may not have gotten the tournament.
Though the country he left behind still has its problems, Mr. Mandela lived to see culmination of his work as a sports statesman, when the world came together on African soil and saw a glimpse of his continent and country’s great potential.
He once said, “[Sport] can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”
It’s safe to say that no one embodied these attributes more than Nelson Mandela.
Idorenyin (Idy) Uyoe spent 10 years in corporate sales with IBM before founding Millenniuum Choice Media Group, a startup that specialized in providing software and digital media solutions to organizations in the emerging markets of Africa. He has worked on projects all over the continent, consulting with a range of governments and NGOs. He helped train the technology support team at Atlanta Olympic venues in 1996 and was selected as a torch bearer in the run-up the Games.