Honoring heroes is an exercise frequently draped in contradiction. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. One party’s chief is another party’s target. Universal praise is rare and usually comes with either selective memory or gradual mythologizing. Such is the case with Nelson Mandela. Mandela’s South Africa was a country slowly sinking beneath the weight of apartheid. And, like anyone experiencing drowning, attempts at freedom become increasingly desperate and violent.
And therein lies the contradiction. Before Mandela began to heal a nation by intentionally installing a multicultural democracy as the nation’s first black president and pursuing personal forgiveness and national reconciliation, he was a man using desperate measures in a desperate time. He pled guilty to 156 counts of public violence, which led to his now infamous 27 years of imprisonment. Regardless of where Mandela falls on the spectrum of sinners and saints, we have to acknowledge the complexity of his context. His reality was not just a theoretical struggle against systematic injustice but a personal, intimate battle that left bruises that were slow to heal and scars that never faded. But at some point during his time on Robben Island, something changed – an idea took root that would prove to be Mandela’s greatest tool in South Africa’s monumental rebuilding process.
Sport would be the great medium, the common ground, where black and white could fade into green...if only for an afternoon. Sport would be the micro-example of what the country could be as a whole. In 1995, Mandela persuaded the black community to throw its support behind the predominately white South African Rugby team. That simple sporting event did more to build bridges between the white and black communities than a thousand political rallies. And again in 2010, Mandela was a leading voice in bringing the World Cup to South Africa for the first time in history. The size and scope of that undertaking, again, brought a nation together to show the world that South Africa had forged the unity, cooperation and ingenuity needed to host the globe’s premier soccer tournament.
Nelson Mandela famously said, "Sport has the power to change the world…it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers."
He’s half right. Sport does have the power to unite. It does cross racial, generational, and political lines. But sport alone can’t change the world, and it can’t create hope. Only the Gospel can do that. Sport can unite people, but it can’t die for their sins and present them as righteous and pure before a holy God.
Sport is the tool we dig with; the Gospel is the seed that we plant. Let’s pray for rain.