When it came to sports, Nelson Mandela had the ability to inspire inspirational figures and leave global stars star-struck.
The former South African president, Nobel Peace Prize winner and anti-apartheid leader died Thursday at the age of 95, leading to a vast outpouring of tributes from the world’s best-known athletes and top sporting bodies.
“It’s sad for everyone who got a chance to not only meet him, but I’ve been influenced by him,” golfer Tiger Woods said. “I got a chance to meet him with my father back in ‘98. He invited us to his home, and it was one of the inspiring times I’ve ever had in my life.”
Boxing great Muhammad Ali said Mandela inspired others to “reach for what appeared to be impossible.”
“What I will remember most about Mr. Mandela is that he was a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge,” Ali said in a statement through his foundation.
NBA star LeBron James said: “In his 95 years, he was able to do unbelievable things not only for South Africa but for the whole world. What he meant to this world while he was able to be here is everything.”
Sprinter Usain Bolt posted on Twitter: “One of the greatest human beings ever ... The world’s greatest fighter,” while Brazilian World Cup winner Pele wrote “He was my hero, my friend.”
As much as sportsmen and women loved Mandela, he in turn loved sport and appreciated its enormous potential to do good. Nowhere more than in his own country, where he famously used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to knock down the last barriers of apartheid.
“A remarkable man who understood that sport could build bridges, break down walls, and reveal our common humanity,” International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said in a statement to The Associated Press.
The IOC will fly the Olympic flag at half-staff for three days for Mandela, he said.
Bach later choked up while speaking about when he met Mandela in 1996 and asked the former political prisoner if he felt hatred toward the apartheid regime that imprisoned him for 27 years.
“His immediate response was ‘no’ but he saw the doubt in my eyes,” Bach said Friday. “’You don’t believe me?’ he asked. ‘I can tell you why. If I hate I would not be a free man anymore.’”
Bach wasn’t the only one to show his emotions. Gary Player paused while speaking at a golf tournament in South Africa to compose himself and wipe away tears.
“When you think of a man going to jail for all those years for doing the right thing, not the wrong thing, it’s hard to comprehend that a man can come out and be like that,” Player said. “He was an exceptional man, just exceptional.”
FIFA President Sepp Blatter said he and world soccer were in mourning at Mandela’s passing and ordered that the 209 flags of the world body’s member countries at FIFA headquarters in Switzerland be flown at half-staff.
“It is in deep mourning that I pay my respects to an extraordinary person, probably one of the greatest humanists of our time and a dear friend of mine: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela,” Blatter said.
From a cricket test in Australia to basketball games in the United States, Mandela was remembered by players and fans across sport with moments of silence in the hours after his death was announced.
A keen amateur boxer and runner in his youth, Mandela understood the intricacies of rugby, soccer and cricket, the most popular sports in his country, but even games and players the South African wouldn’t have been familiar with were touched by him.
“Nelson Mandela was one of the most powerful and inspirational leaders in the world and a great friend of the NBA,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said, “... and while we mourn his passing, we know that his legacy and quest for equality will endure.”
Sport was never far from Mandela’s mind. He was there when South Africa returned to the Olympic family, won rugby’s World Cup, won soccer’s African Cup and earned the right to host FIFA’s World Cup in 2010, the first in Africa. It was fitting that Mandela’s last appearance for an adoring public was when he greeted fans in a packed stadium on the outskirts of Soweto ahead of the 2010 World Cup final.
“When he was honored and cheered by the crowd ... it was as a man of the people, a man of their hearts, and it was one of the most moving moments I have ever experienced,” Blatter said.
A string of Spain’s World Cup winners from that year and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo all tweeted messages of condolence, with many including photographs of themselves with Mandela. Global superstars Woods and David Beckham both made a point of meeting Mandela. Woods came out of his audience with a copy of the man’s autobiography and Beckham was almost reverent in their 2003 meeting.
“We have lost a true gentleman and a courageous human being,” Beckham said on his Facebook page. “It was truly an honor to have known a man who had genuine love for so many people.”
South African golfer Ernie Els said that from around 1996 onwards Mandela would call him every time he won a tournament and they once exchanged gifts after Mandela visited him at a tournament near the former president’s Johannesburg home.
“I’ve still got that picture in my office in the U.S.,” Els said.
But Mandela’s interest in sport wasn’t just for the grand occasion and the photo opportunity.
Recalling his first meeting with a still imprisoned Mandela in 1986 and away from the media spotlight, former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser said Mandela’s first question was about cricket and the man regarded as that sport’s greatest player.
“His first remark to me, after hello, was ... ‘Mr. Fraser is Donald Bradman still alive?’”
Fraser later brought him a bat signed by Bradman. Cricket’s finest batsman had written “in recognition of a great unfinished innings” on the bat.
What Mandela did with rugby at that 1995 World Cup final is one of sport’s defining moments and enshrined in the new South Africa’s conscience.
By pulling on the green and gold jersey of the Springboks, the national team previously all-white and associated with the apartheid regime, Mandela signaled to all South Africans that they should unite. His presentation of the trophy to the Springboks’ blond captain Francois Pienaar provided a lasting image of reconciliation that politics just couldn’t match.
“It was our privilege to have lived in this country during his lifetime,” South African Rugby Union president Oregan Hoskins said in a statement. After 1995, Mandela commonly referred to the team that had previously been boycotted abroad for its associations with apartheid as “my beloved Springboks.”
Current Springboks captain Jean de Villiers said: “His presence at a test match just lifted the crowd and energized the team — it is actually hard to describe.”
Even for New Zealand’s losing rugby captain on that famous June day in 1995, Sean Fitzpatrick, Mandela’s effect was too momentous not to appreciate.
“Afterwards, when we were driving back to our hotel crying, to see the sheer enjoyment of everyone running down the streets ... black, white, colored, whatever they were, just arm in arm celebrating sport,” Fitzpatrick said. “He saw the bigger picture.”
CELEBRATING MANDELA: SOUTH AFRICAN SPORTS GOES ON
SUN CITY, South Africa — South Africa’s multiracial rugby sevens team huddled in the middle of the stadium named after Nelson Mandela. The players raised their hands together to the sky. Then they went out and won the game.
It was all a reflection of Mandela’s vision for sports in his country. And this day was something he surely would have enjoyed.
Just as he famously delighted in the Springboks’ famous rugby World Cup victory in 1995 or the country’s historic role in hosting soccer’s World Cup in 2010.
In the stands at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Saturday, blacks and whites waved their country’s colorful flag and loudly cheered scores by the dreadlocked Cecil Afrika and the team’s blond captain, Kyle Brown.
“It’s a real honor and privilege to be a South African today,” Brown said, apologizing that he wasn’t able to give, as he saw it, a more poetic tribute to the former president, who died Thursday at 95.
Brown, however, may have indeed touched on something: South African sports is now proud, and that wasn’t always the case.
For decades it was splintered by racism, as was every aspect of South Africa’s apartheid-era society. Black players were excluded and white ones vilified for their perceived connection to a racist regime. Fans at home turned on their national teams, until Mandela told them to unite.
So, while mourning the loss of the nation’s beloved father figure, South Africa has decided that sports — so central to the country’s new unity — will go on over the next days as a proud celebration of Mandela’s inspiring legacy.
South Africans will play for Mandela: rugby players, soccer players, cricketers and more.
From the international rugby sevens tournament in Port Elizabeth to a big domestic soccer cup final in the northern city of Nelspruit on Saturday and a cricket game between South Africa and visiting India in the east coast city of Durban on Sunday.
“We celebrate a life well lived,” Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula said, announcing a plan for games for the next week. “It’s through sport that we do not differentiate between white and black but are identified as one nation. This is through the legacy that Mandela achieved.”
Mbalula said that the national anthem — a mix of five languages — would be sung at every match or tournament until Mandela is buried in a state funeral near his rural South African home Dec. 15. That day, next Sunday, no sports will take place.
But until then, the games will proceed with their tributes, moments of silence and black armbands. Every match, Mbalula said, will be dedicated to Mandela.
In Port Elizabeth, in Mandela’s home Eastern Cape province, the South African rugby players beat Canada in their opening game of the international World Sevens Series event. The South Africans wore their black bands on their sleeves across an image of the country’s multicolored flag.
Fans held Mandela banners. One said “Madiboks” — a play on the words Madiba, the affectionate clan name South Africans have for Mandela, and the name of South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks.
A young boy had one huge sign with a famous quote from Mandela emblazoned across it in green and gold letters, the colors worn by South Africa’s national teams: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
Said South Africa cricket captain A.B. de Villiers: “His memory will not only inspire us in our current series against India, but also to always stick together as a team representing a nation into the future. We will miss him.”
Irvin Khoza, chairman of South Africa’s Premier Soccer League, urged players and fans to honor Mandela with every game.
“Ours is a special generation that saw Madiba in action,” he said.
HOW MANDELA CHANGED EVERYTHING WITH A RUGBY JERSEY
JOHANNESBURG (AP) — He emerged into bright winter sunshine, stepped onto the lush field and pulled on a cap. His long-sleeve green rugby jersey was untucked and buttoned right up to the top, a style all his own. On the back, a gold No. 6, big and bold.
Within seconds, the chants went up from the fans packed into Ellis Park stadium in the heart of Johannesburg: “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!”
Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, was wearing the colors of the Springboks and 65,000 white rugby supporters were joyously shouting his name.
It was 1995. The Rugby World Cup final, rugby’s biggest game. And yet it was much more. It was nation-defining for South Africa, a transcendent moment in the transformation from apartheid to multi-racial democracy.
The day spawned books and a blockbuster Clint Eastwood movie. It still speaks — nearly 20 years later — to what sport is capable of achieving. With his cap and a team jersey, Mandela showed an incisive understanding of the role sport plays in millions of lives.
Mandela died Thursday at the age of 95.
“Sport has the power to change the world,” Mandela said in a speech five years after that match. “It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”
A statesman, Mandela didn’t just have brushes with sports, occasional appearances timed only for political gain. He embraced them wholeheartedly — rugby, soccer, cricket, boxing, track and field, among others. And, by many accounts, he truly loved athletic contests, with their celebration of humanity and how they unite teammates, fans and countries in triumph and, sometimes, in despair. At one time in his youth, Mandela cut an impressive figure as an amateur boxer.
On June 24, 1995, Mandela and South Africa were triumphant. And he may just have saved a country by pulling on that green and gold jersey with a prancing antelope on the left breast. The Springboks were dear to the hearts of South Africa’s white Afrikaners and loathed by the nation’s black majority. By donning their emblem, Mandela reconciled a nation fractured and badly damaged by racism and hatred.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I think that Nelson Mandela would pitch up at the final wearing a Springbok on his heart,” South Africa’s captain on that day, Francois Pienaar, said in a television interview some time later. “When he walked into our changing room to say good luck to us, he turned around and my number was on his back.
“It was just an amazing feeling.”
Mandela also could leave millionaire sportsmen like David Beckham and Tiger Woods star-struck.
“Allow me to introduce myself to you,” Mandela joked to then-England soccer captain Beckham when they met in 2003. Only there was no doubting who wanted to meet whom.
A young Woods came out of his audience with Mandela proudly clutching a copy of the president’s autobiography.
Beckham, sitting — almost shyly — on the arm of Mandela’s chair, said his meeting was “an amazing honor,” even if Mandela wasn’t sure what to make of the superstar’s hairstyle of the moment — dreadlocks.
“I’m too old to express an opinion on the latest developments for young people,” Mandela said with a laugh.
In fact, Mandela, who came out of prison at 71 after decades of isolation, never lost touch. It was part of what made him an inspiration for sport and sportsmen and women. While he was incarcerated, South Africa was thrown out of the Olympics for over 30 years and only allowed back in after he was released.
Now, Mandela, known affectionately to South Africans by his clan name Madiba, was wearing the No. 6 jersey of Pienaar — the Afrikaans rugby player with whom he had struck up a close friendship. The relationship was portrayed by Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in the film “Invictus” and took rugby and the story of the ‘95 World Cup to millions unfamiliar with South Africa’s game.
The underdog South Africans won that day, beating New Zealand — the top team in the world — in extra time of a nerve-racking final.
“We underestimated how proud it would make South Africa,” Pienaar said, recalling the tournament and telling of how Mandela would phone him up regularly to check on the team. “It would be Madiba, wanting to chat to me, to find out what’s happening. Is the team focused? Are they OK? Are the guys cool?”
The phone calls told of Mandela’s desire for the Springboks to win for all South Africans, but also his affinity with sport.
He repeated his success in 1996, this time wearing a South Africa national football team shirt as Bafana Bafana claimed the African Cup of Nations title, again on home soil. With Mandela, it appeared you couldn’t lose.
He also was pivotal in helping South Africa eventually win the right to host the 2010 soccer World Cup, the first in Africa and perhaps the biggest test of South Africa’s progress, of its coming of age, just 16 years into its young democracy. South Africa came through it with high praise, sweeping aside the doubters — as Mandela said his country would.
Mandela’s last public appearance for South Africa was at that soccer World Cup final in Soweto, the township closely connected to the struggle against apartheid and the center of the world again for a few weeks — this time in celebration. By then, Mandela was old and, unable to walk for too long and bundled up against the cold in a thick coat and hat, he circled the stadium on a golf cart.
South Africa, and the world, couldn’t celebrate the country’s biggest sporting moment without him. Yet, painfully maybe, it reminded them of a former Mandela. One 15 years earlier.
As he strode out onto the Ellis Park field in June 1995, Mandela stretched out his hand as he approached a line of muscular, young, mostly white South African players. He was crossing a chasm, both in sport and in politics. And yet, he made the journey smoothly and with a smile.
After South Africa had won the final 15-12, a fairytale ending to its first major event as a democracy, Mandela — still in his jersey — handed the glistening gold World Cup trophy to the blonde-haired Pienaar, an ideal picture of a new South Africa. Mandela reached out his left hand and laid it on Pienaar’s right shoulder, patting it gently.
“He said to me ‘Thank you for what you have done for South Africa,’” Pienaar recalled. “I said to him, ‘No, Madiba, you’ve got it wrong. Thank you for what you’ve done for South Africa.’ And I felt like hugging him. I really felt like giving him a big hug, but it wasn’t protocol ... and that just gave me shivers down my spine.”
And then Mandela raised both his arms in celebration, smiling gleefully with obvious and undisguised delight as Pienaar lifted the cup.
“Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination,” Mandela said.
And he proved it.
NELSON MANDELA TOURNAMENT TO BE PLAYED NEXT WEEK
DURBAN, South Africa (AP) — The Nelson Mandela Championship golf tournament will end one day early next week to recognize the state funeral for the late president.
This is the second year the tournament is part of the official European Tour schedule. It was scheduled for Dec. 12-15 at Mount Edgecombe Country Club. The European Tour and Sunshine Tour say it now will start Wednesday and end Saturday.
An official memorial service for Mandela is scheduled for Tuesday at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, where Mandela made his last public appearance at the closing ceremony of the 2010 World Cup. His body will lie in state Wednesday through Friday in Pretoria. The state funeral and burial at Qunu will be Sunday.
The tournament honors Mandela’s charity work through the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.
TRIBUTE TO NELSON MANDELA BEGINS WORLD CUP DRAW
COSTA DO SAUIPE, Brazil (AP) — Nelson Mandela has been remembered with a video tribute to open the World Cup draw ceremony. The 90-second memorial montage included images of Mandela holding the World Cup trophy when FIFA awarded his native South Africa hosting rights for the 2010 tournament.
The film began with sustained applause from guests. The former South Africa president and Nobel Peace Prize winner died on Thursday at age 95.
Mandela’s last major public appearance was at the World Cup final in Johannesburg in July 2010. He came to the Soccer City stadium during the closing ceremony before the match. Mandela was driven in an open electric vehicle around the field on a chilly evening and received an ovation from nearly 85,000 spectators.
PLAYER SAYS HE KISSED MANDELA’S FEET WHEN THEY MET
SUN CITY, South Africa (AP) — The first time he met Nelson Mandela, Gary Player got on his knees and kissed the former political prisoner’s feet. Remembering his “very tearful” first encounter with Mandela, the nine-time major winner paused Friday to compose himself and hold back more tears.
Mandela, the beloved former South African president and Nobel laureate, died Thursday at 95.
Renowned as a fierce competitor on the golf course, Player was invited to meet Mandela at his office in Johannesburg after the anti-apartheid leader’s release after 27 years in prison. But he didn’t expect to do what he did, Player said.
“I knelt down and I kissed his feet and I said, ‘I have never kissed anybody’s feet in my life,’ and I said, ‘I have so much admiration for you.’ I said to him, ‘It is remarkable, how can you not have revenge?’”
Mandela’s reply, according to Player, was: “You have got to start a new life and forgive and go ahead.”
Player, speaking at the Nedbank Golf Challenge at Sun City, said Mandela’s ability to inspire with compassion left him amazed then — and still does.
“It was very tearful for me, because when you think of a man that has gone to jail for all those years for doing the right thing, not the wrong thing, it is hard to comprehend that a man can come out and be like that,” Player said. “He was an exceptional man.”
From that first meeting, Player and Mandela would cross paths regularly as the golfer, one of South Africa’s greatest sportsmen, worked with the president on charity projects. Once, Player remembered with a big smile, Mandela landed at a charity tournament in a helicopter to lend support.
“I had to meet him when the helicopter arrived and open the door. Now I had been around him all these years raising money for young black children and I opened the door, and he says ‘Good morning Gary, do you remember me?’” Player recalled, imitating Mandela’s unique rasping voice. “Just wonderful.”
Although Player wasn’t sure if he ever saw Mandela swing a golf club, he knew that the anti-apartheid leader “realized the value of sport” and even followed Player’s career overseas while he was imprisoned by South Africa’s former racist regime.
“He said to me, ‘When I was in jail, I used to watch you playing.’ He was very complimentary,” Player said.
BOXING GREAT MUHAMMAD ALI PAYS TRIBUTE TO MANDELA
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Muhammad Ali paid tribute to Nelson Mandela as a symbol of forgiveness who inspired others to “reach for what appeared to be impossible,” as the boxing great joined in mourning the death of the South African anti-apartheid leader Thursday.
The icons who shared a boxing background met twice — once in South Africa and once in North America, said a spokeswoman for the Ali Center in Louisville, Ali’s hometown.
“What I will remember most about Mr. Mandela is that he was a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge,” Ali said in his statement released by the Ali Center. “He taught us forgiveness on a grand scale.”
Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison to negotiate an end to white minority rule in South Africa. He later became the country’s first black president.
“He inspired others to reach for what appeared to be impossible and moved them to break through the barriers that held them hostage mentally, physically, socially and economically,” Ali said. “He made us realize, we are our brother’s keeper and that our brothers come in all colors.”
Among the exhibits at the Ali Center is a photo of Ali and Mandela, their hands clenched into fists as if they’re boxing.
That photo was taken during Ali’s trip to South Africa, said Ronald DiNicola, Ali’s longtime attorney who accompanied the boxing great on the trip.
“Mandela was a former fighter, so there was a kindred spirit there,” DiNicola said by phone Thursday evening. “There was always that connection.”
Thousands greeted Ali on his arrival in South Africa, he recalled. Ali’s visit came as the country was mourning the assassination of Chris Hani, another anti-apartheid leader who was killed in 1993. Ali visited Hani’s family and attended the funeral, DiNicola said.
“It had a deep emotional impact on the mourners and the country that Muhammad happened to be there at that moment,” he said. “It gave them, I think, a level of comfort.”
WOODS SAYS MEETING MANDELA “INSPIRING TIME”
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — Tiger Woods said the death of Nelson Mandela was “a sad day for many people,” especially those who had the chance to meet him.
That moment was 15 years ago for Woods when he was in South Africa for the Million Dollar Challenge.
“It’s sad for everyone who got a chance to not only meet him, but I’ve been influenced by him,” Woods said Thursday after the first round of his World Challenge. “I got a chance to meet him with my father back in ‘98. He invited us to his home, and it was one of the inspiring times I’ve ever had in my life.”
Woods did not go into details of stories about Mandela that he has told many times over the years.
At the British Open this summer, when Mandela’s health was failing, he told of walking into a living room in Mandela’s home and feeling a presence he couldn’t describe.
“It still gives me chills to this day, thinking about it,” Woods said in July at Muirfield. “A gentleman asked us to go into this side room over here and, ‘President Mandela will join you in a little bit. And we walked in the room, and my dad and I were just kind of looking around. And I said, ‘Dad, do you feel that? And he says, ‘Yeah, it feels different in this room.
“And it was just like a different energy in the room,” Woods said. “We just looked at each other and just shrugged our shoulders and whatever. And maybe, I’m guessing probably 30 seconds later, I heard some movement behind me and it was President Mandela folding up the paper. And it was pretty amazing. The energy that he has, that he exudes, is unlike any person I’ve ever met. And it was an honor to meet him at his home. And that’s an experience that I will never, ever forget.”
Woods later paid his respects on Twitter.
“Pop & I felt your aura went we met, I feel it today & I will feel it forever. You have done so much for humanity...” said one tweet from Woods. It was followed by, “You will always be in my heart Mr. Mandela.”
Woods, the first player of black heritage to win the Masters in 1997 with a record-breaking performance, was in the middle of overhauling his swing in the fall of 1998. The week after Thanksgiving, he played the Casio World Open in Japan and then made his first trip to South Africa.
“I had read all the information about him,” Woods told The Associated Press in a 2003 interview. “If you’re a minority, you’ve read up on what he did. To go through what he did for 27 years and come out and be as humble as he was, and then run the country ... how tough a person do you have to be to do that?”
Woods returned to South Africa five years later for the Presidents Cup, a time when there was uncertainly whether Americans would travel such a long distance in November for the event. Woods never gave it a second thought, telling the AP he surely would have gotten a phone call from Mandela.
“How can you not want to do anything for that man?” he said.
Mandela met with Woods, Ernie Els and the rest of the players that week at the Presidents Cup, and he attended the opening ceremony. Woods was informed of Mandela’s death after finishing his round at Sherwood Country Club, and before he spoke to reporters.
“He certainly had an impact on my life and certainly my father’s,” Woods said. “When he came out (of prison), the country could have fallen apart. It could have gone a lot of different ways, and he led it to where it’s at now. And the world is going to miss him.”
For Mandela to spend 27 years in prison and emerge without hatred is what Woods found difficult to fathom.
“I don’t think any of us probably here could have survived that and come out as humble and as dignified as he did,” Woods said. “And to lead an entire nation and to basically love the world when he came out, I think that’s a testament to his will and his spirit and who he was.”
FIFA MOURNS MANDELA, ‘ONE OF GREATEST HUMANISTS’
COSTA DO SAUIPE, Brazil (AP) — FIFA president Sepp Blatter says FIFA is in mourning after the death of Nelson Mandela.
He released a statement saying the former South Africa president was “probably one of the greatest humanists of our time.”
Blatter said he and Mandela “shared an unwavering belief in the extraordinary power of football to unite people in peace and friendship.”
One of Mandela’s last major public appearances was during the closing ceremony of the 2010 South Africa World Cup. Blatter is in Brazil for Friday’s World Cup draw that determines who and where the 32 nations will play next year.
FIFA’s president said the flags of the 209 member associations at FIFA’s headquarters will be flown at half-mast and there will be a minute’s silence before the next round of international matches.