POSTED: December 11th 2013

JOHN GOODBODY: Sport backed Mandela on his fight to end apartheid

(L to R) Nelson Mandela congratulates Francois Pienaar on the Rugby World Cup win / Nehanda Radio
(L to R) Nelson Mandela congratulates Francois Pienaar on the Rugby World Cup win / Nehanda Radio

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications                  

(SFC) Sport’s officials and administrators do not often get universal praise for their actions. However, it should be remembered, as we celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, that the decision to isolate South Africa did play a part in destroying apartheid and having democracy installed in the country.

For this the International Olympic Committee (IOC) must take much credit. I must declare an interest here because following the Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960, I demonstrated outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square in London because I was so repelled by the killing by armed police of 69 protestors against the pass laws.

It was that incident, which brought the situation in South Africa to international attention and triggered the passing in 1962 of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1761. This, in turn, led the IOC to bar South Africa from the Tokyo Olympics. South Africa had competed at the Games since 1904 and had won their first gold medal through sprinter Reggie Walker in the 100 metres at the 1908 Games.  

The effect of this prohibition had an impact on South Africa and there were efforts by South African sports authorities, some of whom were doubtless well-meaning, to bend aspects of the apartheid regime so that the IOC would rescind the ban. Mixed-race teams were suggested. However, the basic fact remained that sport in South Africa was being conducted on racist lines. Human beings, because of the different colour of their skin, were unable either to use the same facilities as other people in domestic competitions and training.

What was more difficult to impose was an international ban on South African teams in two sports, cricket and especially rugby union, both of which were traditionally played by the white minority. However, official matches in cricket were suspended after 1968, when South Africa refused to allow England to select Basil D’Oliveira, a Cape Coloured, who was brought up in South Africa but had played first-class cricket in England.

However, there were ‘rebel’ tours of South Africa during the 1980s by players, many of whom were on the verge of retirement. This only succeeded in aggravating the situation and highlighting the situation in South Africa.

Rugby Union has always been a traditional Afrikaner sport and it damaged the 1976 Olympics after the New Zealand team had toured South Africa. Members of the Organisation of African Unity demanded that New Zealand be excluded from the Montreal Games, although rugby was not an Olympic sport and the New Zealand Olympic Committee had no jurisdiction over its country’s rugby officials. The IOC refused and the ensuing boycott by African nations of those Games only harmed their athletes.

However, all these highly-publicised incidents did have an effect on the white population of South Africa, who realised that their country had become the pariah of international sport and it helped prepare their minds for the dismantling of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela from jail.

The return of South Africa to the Olympic Movement in 1992 was, of course, followed by the famous incident at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, when Mandela wore the Springbok jersey and presented the trophy to Francois Pienaar, the white South African captain of a team with only one black player, Chester Williams.

Mandela, who himself had been a boxer in his youth, realised how sport could unite different races. And in opposing apartheid for almost 30 years, international sports bodies and individuals contributed to that cause to which he devoted much of his life.

** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2012 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 12th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.

Keywords · Nelson Mandela · John Goodbody · sport · apartheid

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