Nelson Mandela and the Great Promise of Sport

A lot has been said and written about former South African President, Nelson Mandela concerning his health and the on-going feuds and utter madness prevailing within and among some of his family members.
The whole world, especially those who respect and revere this international icon, has watched with horror as unbridled greed and selfishness become tags that have come to be associated with some members of the Mandela family. It is indeed very frustrating and a cause for serious disillusionment for those who believe in and would like to uphold the legacy of this international icon of equality, justice, peace and reconciliation.
However, the world will never forget that Nelson Mandela has built an enduring legacy not just for political and economic aspects of our lives in the modern world but also for sport.
When the African National Congress (ANC) was unbanned in 1990 and the “Great Man” was released from prison, South African sport was one of the immediate beneficiaries. South Africa was welcomed back with open arms into the arena of international sport. Negotiations took place to unify the erstwhile racially divided sports organisations of the country before they were admitted as members of various international sports federations.
Sport became one of the accelerators or drivers of racial harmony, peace and reconciliation in South Africa. Sport became and is still one of the foundations or building blocks of the “Rainbow Nation”, the complete opposite of racially charged civil war and strife that many people predicted for South Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Nelson Mandela himself has made several pronouncements on the benefits of sport and its great potential to promote unity and tolerance in the world.  As the world focuses on the health and his imminent 95th birthday celebrations, sport people should also pause and reflect on the legacy of the “Great Man”. He has ably led by example to show that indeed, bigotry, intolerance, prejudice and racism have no place in modern sport and society as a whole.
Yes, there are still some, on both sides of the colour divide, who are fighting to take humanity back to the Stone Ages, of racial hatred, fascism, violence and hooliganism. They will try but Nelson Mandela and other great leaders have put humanity on a progressive and irreversible path to equality, racial harmony and peace. Yes, we are not there yet but the majority of people are resolute that they will not return to the dark days of the past. No matter what the detractors and extremists say or do, sport in the contemporary world remains one of the greatest tools to build and shape a better future characterised by international peace, understanding and world citizenship.
In this connection, Africans have a distinct role to play in living the example of Nelson Mandela in demanding racial equality and equity in sport, in championing the cause of the previously disadvantaged peoples of the world. The leadership of sports organisations and organisers of sports events in the world must also respond to this clarion call for change.
In this connection, racism has once more reared its ugly head in Europe, particularly in football. The responses of both governmental and sport authorities have been very pathetic indeed. Some clubs have just received the proverbial slaps on the wrists for the unacceptable and primitive behaviour of their fans.
In some cases, football players of African descent are the ones who have been actually threatened with disciplinary measures if they walk off the pitch when they are being subjected to racial attacks and slurs. This is simply not right. Governing bodies such as UEFA have really not made any concerted efforts to deal with the scourge of racism in European football, especially in Eastern Europe.
Organisers of major events should be held accountable in terms of creating environments that are conducive to the participation of diverse competitors at their events. As much as illegal betting, cheating and doping are serious threats to the integrity of sport, racism also poses a great danger to world sport and should be addressed in bid documents for  various major international events.
As much as we castigate incidences of racism in world sport and football in particular, we should also give credit where it is due. For example, the recently retired Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson has built formidable teams strictly on merit, not on the basis of race.  He has personally spoken out against racism and taken practical steps to show that it does not matter whether you are black or white.  It is all about what you can do on the football pitch.
Paul McGrath, Paul Parker, Andrew Cole, Paul Ince, Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Danny Welbeck, Nani, Quinton Fortune and  Eric Djemba-Djemba are some of the players of Africa descent who  have been provided with a platform to excel by the by the most successful  football manager in the history of the game.
The maverick “Special One” or now the “Happy One” as Jose Mourinho refers to himself, has also been a fantastic servant of world football. He brought out the best and helped to fire up the international football careers of Claude Makelele, Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Ashley Cole.
Just like Sir Alex Ferguson, he helped to make all his players great football icons and role models for younger generations, regardless of the colour of their skin. Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger has also been a great ambassador for football through his nurturing of the careers of Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell, Nwankwo Kanu, Kolo Toure and many others.
Athletes of African descent themselves have been great ambassadors of sport since time immemorial. The achievements of the phenomenal Jesee Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Germany are some of the great moments that remain treasured in sport history. Muhammad Ali will always be the greatest boxer and showman that ever lived. The Brazilian Pele, Eusebio of Mozambique/Portugal, Michael Jordan, Jomo Sono, John Barnes, George Weah, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rickjaard, Frank Fredericks, Abedi Ayew, Lucas Radebe, Maria Mutola, Kalusha Bwalya, Moses Chunga, Amantle Montsho and Mario Balotelli are examples of sporting greatness that Nelson Mandela would have given his life to bring to prominence in a sporting world of characterised by friendship, joy, laughter, smiles and above all total enjoyment.
As the “Great Man” himself has said, “It is in our hands”.  Indeed it is in our hands to build a better world characterised by genuine brotherhood and sisterhood of all humankind. It is up us to create a world where our children and their children can come out to play without fear of violence, hooliganism, racist monkey chants, racial slurs as well as other forms of intolerance and primitiveness.
Long Live Madiba! We wish you a speedy recovery, Tata and pray that sanity prevails in your family!

July 2013
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