On Nelson Mandela and Sport

What can we learn about sports from one of the great leaders of our time?

What can we learn from Nelson Mandela's interest in Rugby?

Humans are tribal by nature, it seems. Sport provides a relatively harmless outlet for that. And when I say “harmless”, I mean, “better than war.”

Perhaps we ought to be breaking the tribal habit. At the same time, in a world with so much suffering and so many perils, perhaps we ought to embrace every opportunity for celebration.

Nelson Mandela seems to have believed this when he hoisted the Rugby World Cup trophy with Springbok caption François Pienaar in June of 1995. Mandela was leading his country through a painful reconciliation process. He saw not merely a sporting event, but an opportunity to celebrate, as one nation, in front of the whole world.

Business schools teach us that good leaders celebrate the “small wins.” The day after hoisting the trophy with Pienaar, Mandela, and the nation he led, faced a withering blizzard of problems. Why, then, did this visionary leader, occupy so much of his valuable time with a mere sporting event?

Because it was one of those small wins. A way to mark some progress on the journey back from the edge of civil war. A way for a nation to acknowledge it’s common humanity.

My hope is that rather than mourning Mandela’s passing as part of a politically correct narrative, we will collectively be inspired by his life in our own small and private ways. The real tragedy isn’t his passing, it’s that his leadership is so extraordinary. Perhaps in the generations to come, it will become ordinary, Mandela’s shining example becoming merely one of many.

And, perhaps, we shall stop once in awhile to cheer for the home team, and celebrate when they win.