Mandela knew sport had the power to help end apartheid - it gave hope and defiance in the face of evil, and the greatest man of the age embraced its power
Back in the Seventies, I interviewed an England rugby forward. He was a large, pugnacious character who enjoyed a reputation for plain speaking. We were discussing the controversy over sporting links with South Africa, when he suddenly remarked: ‘I’m all for it, personally. Bloody good thing.’ ‘What, touring South Africa?’ I asked. ‘Apartheid,’ he said. ‘Makes a lot of sense in my opinion.’
Such bone-headed prejudice was not uncommon among rugby men of his generation. And yet, scarcely more than 20 years later, a black president stood in the middle of Ellis Park, Johannesburg, clutching the Rugby World Cup and wearing the Springbok jersey, while 65,000 South Africans chanted his name.
The world had changed, Nelson Mandela had changed it and sport had played a full and honourable part in that stunning transformation.
Power to change: Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar shake hands after the 1995 Rugby World Cup
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Looking back down the decades, there is a temptation to assume that events followed a logical, predestined course: hideous oppression provoking widespread revulsion and the international community, responding to the inspiring example of Mandela, coming together in support of South African freedom.
In fact, the story is a good deal more complicated. The most urgent need was to demonstrate global disapproval of white minority rule. The chosen method was enforced isolation and the weapon which struck most directly at Afrikaners’ sense of self-esteem was the sporting boycott.
More than almost any other tribe on Earth, white South Africa measured its place in the world by its prowess at sport. And it took a perverse pride in the fact that its sport was reserved for members of the master race.
Black or so-called ‘coloured’ athletes
were prevented by law from training or competing with whites. They
could not represent national teams and any countries touring South
Africa could not select people of colour.
was confronted with the most serious moral question it has faced in
modern times. Given this grotesque affront to human dignity, did it
adopt the stance that it was none of its business and that politics is
best left to politicians? Or did it sever sporting links, declare the
system untouchable and insist there could be no normal sport in an
know that Mandela, in his cell on Robben Island, reacted with joy when
sport took the civilised course. A boxer in his Soweto youth, a sports
enthusiast throughout his life, he understood the force of a sporting
reacted relatively swiftly. FIFA, to their credit, suspended South
Africa from membership in 1963. The International Olympic Committee
first withdrew South Africa’s invitation to the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo,
then expelled them from the movement in 1970. In that year, the IAAF,
the ruling body of athletics, followed suit.
New boundaries: Mandela also helped bring the 2010 World Cup to his country
David Bernstein was an admirable FA chairman. Erudite and principled, with a distaste for personal publicity, he made an understated success of a difficult job. Then the FA backwoodsmen forced him to step down at the age of 70 and many of us thought it a great mistake. On Friday evening, we watched his successor, Greg Dyke, seize a photo-opportunity by making a crassly ostentatious cut-throat gesture at the World Cup draw. And we knew we were right.
Others were more circumspect. The
International Cricket Council imposed a moratorium on tours to and from
South Africa in 1970, following Basil D’Oliveira’s infamous rejection,
but the Establishment figures running English cricket seemed reluctant
to offend old chums.
Consequently, there was little appetite for vigorously punishing those so-called ‘rebel’ cricketers who scurried off to the Cape with eyes closed and palms outstretched. Both Graham Gooch, who led the first tour in 1982, and Mike Gatting, leader of the last in 1990, were banned for three years. Yet Gooch is now the England batting coach, while Gatting is president of MCC. Some might think this is taking mercy a step too far, but Mandela, who preached and practised forgiveness, would surely have approved.
But if cricket was vapid, then rugby
was utterly shameless. It was as if apartheid were some irksome by-law
rather than a crime against humanity.
South Africa remained a member of the International Rugby Board throughout the apartheid era, although they missed the first two World Cups in 1987 and 1991.
Meeting: Lucas Radebe and David Beckham met Mandela ahead of an England international friendly against South Africa in 2003
Strike a pose: A boxer in his youth, Mandela poses with former world champions Lennox Lewis and Marvin Hagler in 2001
The D'Oliveira affair: Basil D'Oliveira rejected the chance to play in apartheid South Africa in the 1960s
They entertained the British and Irish Lions in 1980 and at various times they toured Britain, Australia and New Zealand, despite the violent demonstrations which ensued.
It was important for rugby to show solidarity with Brother Boer, regardless of the consequences for other, blameless, sports.
Rugby’s bovine obduracy did more than any other sport to mobilise opinion against the South African regime. Serious people were finding it impossible to take the side of such numbskulls. And sport at large had worked effectively. Week by week, the boycott focused attention on the iniquities of the system. The more the publicity, the deeper the distaste.
Ultimately, it was the force of trade sanctions and diplomatic intervention which brought the walls crashing down but when Mandela walked free from jail on that memorable February day in 1990, he knew sport had done its work well.
Some years later, he expressed his thanks in these words: ‘Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers.’ It was an elegant compliment from the finest and bravest human being of our age.
In return, sport can offer Nelson Mandela the tribute that an American sportswriter once paid to the heavyweight champion, Joe Louis: ‘He was a credit to his race; the human race.’
Birthday celebrations Pele and Eto'o hand Mandela a birthday present ahead of his 89th birthday
Ashes disaster? We had it coming
The steering buckled in Brisbane, the wheels fell off in Adelaide, and with Perth, Melbourne and Sydney ahead, the rust-bucket that is England’s cricket team will do well to complete the journey.
They seem so far away, those days of triumph and gloating. Why, we had almost forgotten Michael Vaughan’s rib-tickling tweets: ‘What do you call a great Australian cricketer? Retired.’ ‘What do you call an Aussie with a 100 by his name? A Bowler.’
Hot stuff: Mitchell Johnson has been brilliant in the Ashes series so far
Then there was Sir Ian Botham’s assessment of the present series: ‘I don’t see them (Australia) winning a game, to be honest… I’ve been going with 5-0 all along.’
And we shall not mention the Barmy Army’s witty taunting of Mitchell Johnson, which has proved such a splendidly effective ploy. Those who have followed the team through the years do so in the knowledge that England are never more than a match or a series from disaster.
Arrogance is, therefore, misplaced and boasting seems inappropriate. Sure, the present collapse is spectacular, even by historic standards. But perhaps we had it coming.
Collapse is never far away: England's arrogance coming into the series was misguided
Ronnie's bleats go up in smoke
Ronnie O’Sullivan was in morose mood. Competing in the UK Snooker Championship at the Barbican Centre in York, he was unable to find a hotel room in town. ‘I’m about an hour’s drive out of the city because of the traffic. I got changed in the toilets of the Novotel over the road,’ he said.
And it’s not only Ronnie who senses that the times they are a-changing. ‘Me, (Stephen) Hendry, (Mark) Williams and (John) Higgins reminisce about the old days,’ said O’Sullivan. ‘The events don’t quite have the standards that they used to. With the tobacco sponsors, there was great hospitality, courtesy cars, everything.’
Mistreated? Ronnie O'Sullivan has complained about the hospitality standards at the UK Championships
Ah, those good old days, when even a pseudo-sport like snooker could offer cheap advertising to multi-national pushers with cigarettes to sell and a smoking habit to feed.
Opinions are divided. On the one hand that habit is the direct cause of several types of cancer, strokes, emphysema, pneumonia and heart disease, and accounts for 114,000 deaths a year in the UK. But on the other, the courtesy cars turned up on time.
Pros and cons, you see. You must take your pick. Ronnie and his chums appear to have chosen.
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