Nelson Mandela used sports to unite a truly Rainbow Nation

With the help of fun and games, the former president brought joy and fortune to his nation. But more crucially, he also brought multi-racial South Africa together.

Nelson Mandela played a significant role in South Africa's clinching of the Fifa World Cup hosting rights in 2010. Here he was posing with the Jules Rimet trophy with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Franck Fife / AFP

On the day of his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela was in a hurry. It did not show in the dignified speech to the thousands who gathered in Pretoria to witness a defining moment of the 20th century, nor to the global television audience of over a billion.
Later, among the broad range of VIP guests ranging from Fidel Castro to Hillary Clinton, there was an awareness that Mandela had a pressing timetable.
After the ceremony on May 10, 1994, Mandela needed to travel quickly to Johannesburg. His first appointment as head of state would deliver him many loyal constituents. He was due at a football match.
He arrived at Ellis Park a little behind schedule. South Africa's game against Zambia had already kicked off. The grand entry of the then-73 year old took place at half time, to ecstatic cheers. The team appeared suddenly galvanised. From goalless at half time, South Africa's national XI, a reflection of the so-called Rainbow Nation - a group of black, white and mixed-race players - were leading 2-0 by the 48th minute.
Sport was important to Mandela. In the long struggle against apartheid, the system of racial discrimination which governed South Africa for most of his lifetime, he understood sport's power and resonance, the essential meritocracy of the playing field, ring or track, arenas where hierarchy is set by talent, not social status. A boxing fan, he told an audience in New York, "as a young man, I idolised the 'Brown Bomber' Joe Louis, who took on not only his opponents in the ring, but racists outside it".
In his younger days, as he established himself as a lawyer, Mandela had been a keen boxer. He sparred with Jerry Moloi, a popular lightweight who fought in Soweto and other townships in the 1960s. Like all South African athletes at the time, Moloi was obliged by law to fight in segregated competitions: Whites played sport with whites, blacks with blacks and Indians with Indians. Thus, was sport one of the plainest expressions of the absurdities of apartheid.
Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), the movement that led the fight for justice, would make sport a key arm in the battle to isolate a racist government from the rest of the world. Pressure on the international community led to a country whose team-selection policies were based on race, not talent, being shunned. Between the 1950s and 1970s, white-ruled South Africa would be banned from Fifa, the Olympics, international cricket and eventually rugby union. For many white fans in a sport-oriented country, that hurt more than economic sanctions.
Mandela was a political prisoner for much of that period, but resourcefully kept in touch and guided ANC strategy on issues like sanctions. On Robben Island, where he would spend most of his incarceration, he initiated parallel battles for the rights of inmates, lobbying for exercise facilities. A particular triumph, he would later relate, was converting "our courtyard into a tennis court. Its dimensions were almost exact. Prisoners painted the cement surface green and then fashioned the traditional configuration of white lines, a net was put up and suddenly we had our own Wimbledon."
Well into his 80s, Mandela would follow a rigorous exercise regimen. Prison, and its long days under a hot sun or the bitter wind off the Atlantic, breaking stones in the lime quarry would takes its toll on him physically, but the meticulous observance of press-ups, runs and a quiet pride in his youthful boxing and football and, in middle-age, his "relatively strong tennis forehand" contributed to taking a remarkable life into a 95th year.
But the reason current retrospectives feature such prominent images of Mandela in sporting jerseys relate to how shrewdly he appreciated the political clout, and nation-building symbolism, of sport. The sanctions that kept the bad old South Africa out of international arenas would be mostly lifted in the period between Mandela's release from prison in 1990 and his election as president more than four years later.
That was strategic.

Sceptical white South Africans started to recognise Mandela's ANC as a force for good. Mandela gave South Africa his blessing to send a team to the 1992 cricket World Cup in Australasia. During the tournament, talks about the country's precarious move to democracy reached a key crossroads, with white voters offered a referendum by the reformist government of FW De Klerk to choose whether they supported the transition or would prefer to stall it.
It was made very clear to them that if they said 'No' to democracy, they would be not spending their future evenings watching their cricketers roar to the semi-finals of World Cups, or their athletes at the Olympics. The sports fans among the voters helped swing the referendum in favour of progress.
Most famously, there would be Mandela's support of rugby union, a sport narrowly associated with the Afrikaner community, whose political leaders had designed apartheid and benefited most from its brutal injustices. During the 1995 World Cup, staged in South Africa, Mandela made a point of backing the Springboks, and wearing a jersey once despised by a vast majority of black South Africans, who had grown up always cheering the opposition if the Boks were playing.
It was a risky stance by Mandela, even in the mid-1990s. More than once he was publicly jeered by black South Africans for his allegiance to the national rugby XV. He persisted with the policy, with his aim to show that deep social divisions could be breached, that people will unite around a common target. The story is poignantly told in the Oscar-nominated film Invictus, and symbolised in the trophy handover between a Mandela wearing his number six rugby jersey and the victorious South African captain Francois Pienaar.
Less than a year later, a distinct but equally memorable image: Mandela in the jersey of the national football team, frolicking with the winners of the 1996 African Cup of Nations, in Soweto, celebrating the country's finest achievement in its most popular sport.
A free Mandela saw World Cups in rugby, cricket and football come to a country which was once a pariah state. His impact on the bidding processes for host-status rights in each of them had been considerable. In the Byzantine, often-tawdry sphere of sports politics, he imposed himself as a morally upright and shrewd figure.
South Africa narrowly and controversially - one Fifa executive abstained from voting, which meant Germany pipped South Africa - failed to gain the right to host the 2006 World Cup, the fact that Mandela had not been in Zurich for the vote was thought to have hampered the final hours of lobbying.
When South Africa tried again for the 2010 tournament, he made sure he was there. The bid succeeded that time and the delight of an 86 year old was vivid.
Clutching the World Cup trophy, he beamed: "I feel like a young man of 15 again."