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The late Nelson Mandela understood the true power of sports

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Nelson Mandela hands the 1995 Rugby World Cup trophy to South African captain Francios Pienaar.

All nations need symbolic moments at which the people, gripped by a sense of energy and idealism, become united. For the majority of countries, those moments come at the end of a war or after a revolution; for the modern South Africa, bitter and hard as the struggle against apartheid was, rebirth came on the sports field.

That the late Nelson Mandela was a great man and a great leader can hardly be doubted, but what can be overlooked is what a great politician he was. He saw the value of sport and, in two key moments, used it to bring a sense of togetherness to South Africa. In sports, the dream of the Rainbow Nation became, however briefly, however illusory, flesh: it offered a glimpse of something transcendent. Mandela died Thursday at age 95.

Perhaps Mandela had always known the value of sports, but what happened during his incarceration on Robben Island must have reinforced the message that sports have an extraordinary power to bring people together. While he was in solitary confinement, a soccer league began. At first, 22 players were selected at random, but soon a structure was imposed, and a soccer association set up to FIFA guidelines. Everything, it was decided, had to be done properly, something essential for maintaining harmony when the eight teams were drawn up on largely political lines: one represented the African National Congress, another the Communist Party, another the Pan-African Congress ...

"We'd gone to jail for democracy, and this was a chance to show ourselves that we could put that into practice," said Marcus Solomons, who was jailed for his membership of small Maoist group. "It helped overcome tensions and differences, and to break down the barriers between political factions. That was one of the main messages -- that sport is about developing people. It's a social activity."

GALLERY: Nelson Mandela in sports

As the soccer became more competitive, disputes occurred. Everything, though, was done absolutely by the book. If players were disciplined, they would be granted the right to argue their case and then to appeal if the judgment went against them. "At the time in South Africa there was no due process," said Sedick Isaacs, another former prisoner who is now a professor of medicine at Cape Town University. "There was torture and coercion. This was a chance to show you could have due process and how it could work."

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Mandela celebrates after handing the 1996 African Cup of Nations trophy to South African captain Neil Tovey.

Soccer took on a symbolic function. It became a representation of the outside world -- which is why club secretaries would write formal letters to each other, even if they happened to be sleeping in the next bunk -- but an idealized version of it. "In football," said Marck Shinners, one of only four men to be sent to Robben Island twice, "there is a culture of transcendence. Football makes you transcend the area you find yourself in. People might not know you, but football gives you a sense of belonging. When we left the island, it was very clear that South Africa was changing, and that football was going to be important. South Africa had to come into the fold, but it needed transformation, and football kept people going during that time."

Mandela, it's said, would watch the games from his cell, until prison authorities decided to build a wall to block his view. No matter; the lesson had been learned. Almost three years after Mandela had been released from jail, on June, 24, 1995, South Africa beat New Zealand at Ellis Park to win the rugby World Cup. Rugby had always been seen as the sport of Afrikaners and there was just one player of mixed race in the side, but Mandela encouraged the whole nation to back the Springboks to believe in the slogan of "One Team, One Country."

Most of the 63,000 in the stadium that afternoon were white. For years they had been conditioned to believe that Mandela, who served 27 years in jail, was both of a lesser race and a dangerous terrorist. Yet that afternoon, in what Archbishop Desmond Tutu described as "an electric moment," they bellowed Mandela's name as he wore the green and gold jersey that only a year or two earlier most blacks had reviled. South Africa defended heroically to win 15-12 and, as he left the field, captain Francois Pienaar found the perfect words: "We didn't have the support of 63,000 South Africans today," he said. "We had the support of 42 million."

When Mandela handed over the Webb Ellis Cup to Pienaar he said, "Thank you very much for what you have done for our country." Pienaar replied, "[Mr President], it is nothing compared to what you have done for our country." For a brief moment, idealism reigned: truth and reconciliation, the brotherhood of races, suddenly seemed possible. "Quite unbelievable, quite incredible, what happened," said Tutu. "It had the effect of just ... turning around the country. It was an incredible transformation. An extraordinary thing. It said, yes, it is actually possible for us to become one nation."

And seven months later, it happened again. On Feb. 3, 1996, Mandela again donned a national team shirt and again handed over a trophy to a white captain of South Africa. This time it was the soccer team that was successful and, while the the African Cup of Nations title was a continental title rather than a world one, it arguably had a greater impact. This, after all, was in the majority sport, and the team was truly mixed race. "What happened in '95 was fantastic for the country but us winning in '96 was the coming together," said Eric Tinkler, a midfielder on the '96 team.

"We feel we are, by far, the national sport, in terms of numbers and support base," said Neil Tovey, the captain of that team. "In terms of what we achieved, that moment was important in the history of the country. It was two years after we became a multi-racial country, and we knew we had a role to play in uniting the country, that sporting achievement could do that."

Mandela recognized that. It is to his credit, and that of the South Africa he tried to build, that the euphoric surge of patriotism was inspired not by conflict, but by the nation coming together over sports.

SI Now: Larry King on Nelson Mandela
On Thursday's SI Now, Larry King reflects on the time he has spent with Nelson Mandela and the effect Mandela has had on the world.
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