"You helped to unite our nation as only sport can do by winning the Rugby World Cup in 1995. You made us all proud of being South Africans. Citizens of the new, non-racial democratic South Africa." - Nelson Mandela, speaking in 2011
Nelson Mandela's strength in producing reconciliation during his term as president in South Africa after 27 years in prison was as remarkable as his will to persevere during his incarceration.
Mandela's crowning moment of bringing his racially-torn nation together came in the 1995 World Cup Rugby championships, which was dramatized in the 2009 Matt Damon/Clint Eastwood collaboration "Invictus."
Mandela fought to bring the tournament to his country and the home team - the Springboks - shocked the defending world champions from Australia in the first round. This was the first major international sporting event held in the country after the end of apartheid.
Rugby was the "white man's game" in South Africa. But Mandela saw the importance of embracing this team and making blacks in South Africa celebrate it as much as traditional white fans.
"One team, one country," was the motto.
As the tournament progressed, Mandela, who demonstrated forgiveness toward those who had imprisoned him, convinced the people of South Africa, black and white, of the importance of unifying in support of their team, and therefore, their country.
After South Africa completed its epic upset over New Zealand in the championship, Mandela, wearing the uniform of the Springboks, walked into the heart of the cheering stadium to chants of more than 65,000 mostly white rugby fans chanting "Nelson! Nelson!"
Mandela also used sports to spread his anti-apartheid crusade during a 1990 visit to the United States. He spoke in Harlem on June 22, then later that same night, appeared at Yankee Stadium amid cheers of ''''Amandla! Amandla!'' the Zulu word for power. Mandela received a Yankees jacket from then-Mayor David Dinkins and ended his speech by saying: ''You now know who I am. I am a Yankee."
One Yankees fan the entire world could love.
It was another example demonstrating both the power of sports and their worth in the real world. Mandela was wise enough on more than one occasion to know how it could be used in a positive, proactive way. Boston saw this in 2013 as its pro sports team helped the city, its people and those who love it so heal on a personal and civic level after the Marathon Bombings.
Mandela died Thursday. He was 95. May he rest in peace.
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