There is little that that P&J can add to the extolling of Nelson Mandela upon his death last week, except that we share the enormous respect for the man that’s been shown worldwide. Oddly enough, one of the most telling and heartfelt tributes to the man that we saw was on ESPN’s SportsCenter, which celebrated his contribution to South African solidarity through sports.
When South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup in 1995, rugby was still the “white” game and national sport in South Africa, while soccer was the “black” sport. And people made no bones about it. Surprisingly, South Africa made it to the World Cup final that year — a big deal for a host country — and it gave the country reason to racially come together, however tentatively, behind the team.
The South African team, called the “Springboks,” was to play the highly favored New Zealand (ironically known as the “All Blacks” because of their uniforms) in the final. And in SportsCenter’s telling of it, instead of going with the default footage most news outlets went to — which were clips from the (horrible) movie Invictus, which Hollywood-ized the event, casting Matt Damon as Springboks’ captain Francois Pienaar — they instead played footage of the game at Ellis Park stadium, as well as minutes’ worth of interviews with the players, including Pienaar.
In his interview, Pienaar described how, just before the final, then-President Mandela went into South Africa’s locker room wearing the national team jersey and cap. Pienaar said the whole team was gobsmacked, and he admitted with what still seemed to be amazement that he never thought he would ever see the black leader wear a Springboks shirt. All the former players and head coach said in interviews that this surprise visit, indeed, helped spark their upset win over the All Blacks in overtime, and almost to a man they ended up teary-eyed on camera while talking about it.
It was a giant leap for humankind, as both blacks and whites joined in a countrywide frenzied celebration, and when Mandela went out to hand the World Cup trophy to a beaming Pienaar, the entire stadium spontaneously broke out in a chant of “Nel-son,” “Nel-son.” One person on the field said it sounded like a volcano erupting. The moment also marked the until-then rare occasion of blacks and whites hugging each other in delight over the victory.
Mandela went on to help South Africa become the first African country to host the soccer World Cup in 2010. It was the biggest sports event on the planet and a further use of sports to bring his country closer and show the world the progress that could be made via athletics, where race and color matter little, especially in a country that had suffered apartheid for so long.
Congrats, SportsCenter, for taking the time to do it right. Watching the show left more than just the Springboks’ old boys in tears.
And on the other hand. . .
Congrats to both Israel’s Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Providence’s own Bishop Tommy Tobin, both abominable blowhards and self-promoters, for disgracing themselves in the wake of Mandela’s passing.