Nelson Mandela Day: Madiba and his connection to sport

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This story was originally published on 18 July 2018, on what would have been Madiba’s 100th birthday, and has been updated.

South African icon Nelson Mandela, who was born 101 years ago today, was well known for his love of boxing, but he was a fan of anything that brought sports fans together.

There are many photos of him grinning from ear to ear, with obvious joy, as he celebrated the triumphs and the efforts of sportspeople and teams he met, even when he eventually had to remain seated due to old age.

Madiba, as he is still known, passed away at age 95 in 2013, and every year the country celebrates Mandela Day on 18 July, which gives us an opportunity to look back on his sporting moments.

One of the most memorable, and emotional, moments came in 1995 when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup, on home soil, just one year after the country’s first democratic elections.


To see Madiba’s sheer delight at captain Francois Pienaar lifting the trophy, and to see them shake hands at a time when the country was not even close to being at peace with recent developments in the wake of Apartheid, still brings a lump to the throat.

Tata, which means ‘father’ in isiXhosa, his mother tongue, got another opportunity to celebrate rugby success when the Springboks won the World Cup again in 2007. While he was getting on in years, in his late 80s already, his smile said it all.

Of course, one cannot forget Morgan Freeman’s many turns as Mandela in Hollywood lore, but the relevant one for our purposes was for the film “Invictus,” where Matt Damon played the role of Pienaar in the story about the World Cup win. The accents were … interesting.

The famous photo of Madiba in his boxing stance, taken around 1950 and thus over a decade before his imprisonment in 1962, gives a clue about how many boxers he would meet after his release 27 years later.

The most famous, of course, is Muhammad Ali. The pair met a few times, the first of which was in 1993 when Ali visited South Africa. They later met again when Madiba visited North Carolina, and again in 2003 in Ireland.

The elder Ali wasn’t the only boxer in the family to spend time with the former president, with Laila Ali meeting the fellow pugilist ahead of her fight in Johannesburg in 2007.

The UK’s Lennox Lewis was also given the opportunity to pose with Madiba, meeting him in 2001 after losing his fight against Hasim Rahman at Carnival City. Rahman, however, turned down the chance to meet Mandela and returned home to the United States.

The statesman’s love for football was also well known, and he was talismanic in South Africa’s winning bid to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Here, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu grinning broadly, their infectious joy radiated.

Icons of the sport, like Pele and Samuel Eto’o, travelled to South Africa in 2007 to play in the ’90 Minutes for Mandela’ exhibition match, on the verge of Madiba’s 90th birthday. George Weah, now Liberia’s president, played in that game too.

Not to be left out, cricket also got some love from the great man, including when he met with the South African team ahead of the 2003 World Cup on home soil. It didn’t bring the team much luck, though, as they were knocked out in the group stage.

Dikembe Mutombo, the Congolese NBA star who played for the Denver Nuggets at the time, met with Madiba as part of an NBA tour to Africa in 1993, a year before he was elected president.

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