Lessons from Mandela on sports and politics

Sports and politics have always shared an interesting intersection.  No one recognized this more than the late Nelson Mandela  who loomed large in the last days of 2013. It was through sports that the iconic leader was able to transcend deep cultural divisions and apply his greatest characteristics--dignity, discipline, humility generosity and passion, as well as a keen understanding of what makes people tick. 

In South Africa, the term “comrade” has always been a double entendre.  Politically, it was a term of friendship or alliance for members of Mandela’s “ANC,” the leading anti-apartheid organization.    The Comrades is also the name of South Africa’s legendary, grueling,  internationally recognized 89km ultra-marathon between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg.  It’s a big deal: Last year there were almost 20,000 registrants, some 14000 started the race but only 10,000 finished, perhaps because it was unusually hot and windy.

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Mandela always liked the Comrades marathon. He was a long distance runner in his youth, in  the 1950s in Johannesburg, and paid multiple visits to Comrades in his post-prison years. He appreciated the role Comrades has played in South African culture, sports and history. With his dry wit, at Comrades in 1996 he said: “After what happened today and especially after seeing the courage and determination of those who just made it (under 12 hours to get a medal), I have decided to take part in the next Comrades Marathon. “

But, there was a bigger reason for Mandela’s visit.  The Comrades story reflects his life and ideals.

Although non-whites were not permitted to officially run Comrades until 1975, there is a long history of white runners giving their finisher medals to non-whites. Today, there is a bronze memorial at the entrance of the Comrades Museum of Robert Mtshali who, in 1935, became the first known non-white to run the race.

 In 1975, fifteen years before Mandela walked out of prison, Comrades escaped the evils of apartheid.  That year, the village of Kloof, on the race route, decided that unless Comrades was open to all men and woman of all races there would be no running the Comrades that year - a direct challenge to apartheid.  The authorities’ “solution” was to declare Comrades an international race. Indigenous South African peoples could participate as visitors from independent states, thus avoiding a conflict with apartheid. Never again would anyone be excluded from Comrades.

Move forward to 1981, nine years before Mandela’s walk to freedom.  That year the South African government decided to incorporate Comrades as an integral part of the 20th anniversary of the Republic of South Africa and of apartheid.  To boycott the race or not tore apart Comrades runners.  Bruce Fordyce, a university student and white South African decided on another option.  He ran, wearing a black arm band in protest of apartheid.   At the start Bruce was greet by boos and catcalls and pelted by tomatoes thrown by a fellow runner.  He was also warned to be careful of the drinks at the tables on the course, because the secret police were supposedly planning to spike his drinks to prevent him from winning.  Fordyce won the race and it was the first of a record nine Comrades wins.

 Mandela became president of South Africa in May 1994, with the very real prospect of a race war commencing any day. On the eve of South Africa hosting the World Rugby Cup, Mandela saw an opportunity of perhaps uniting South Africa behind the Springboks, the nation’s rugby team.   It was a seemingly impossible task because “The Boks” were historically the symbol of apartheid and detested for that reason by the majority population.

Yet, as John Carlin, whose book inspired the movie Invictus, observed:  “The rugby game was the orgiastic conclusion of the most unlikely exercise in political seduction ever undertaken.”

 Under Mandela’s spell,  all South Africans adopted the slogan, “One Team, One Country” and the Springboks won the World Cup. Presenting the World Cup to the team’s captain,  Mandela said: “François, thank you for what you have done for our country.”  The captain replied:  “No, Mr. President, thank you for what you have done.”

Now to the present.  The Comrades Marathon Association each year gives a “Spirit of Comrades” award.  I remember the remarks of one of the recipients in 2008: “With some 20 kilometers to go, I faltered , dizzy, exhausted, and my will to go on had disappeared.  A young black woman runner took my hand and said we must continue.  After walking for a while, I asked her to leave me.  Otherwise she would not finish in time to get a medal.  No, she said, we must and will cross the finish line together. The next year, I saw a woman runner falter, took her hand and we crossed the finish line together.”

Nelson Mandela said:  “Sports has the power to change the world.  It has the power to inspire.  It has the power to unite people in a ways that little else does.”   When Mandela honored Bruce Fordyce at Comrades, he joked: “Here’s Bruce, the man with more comrades than my ANC.”

Bloomfield is the president of the American Council for Capital Formation. He is also  the U.S. Comrades Ambassador, has three Vic Clapham Comrades medals, received the Spirit of Comrades award and was recognized at the unveiling of the Nelson Mandela statue in Washington D.C.