Nelson Mandela: “Sport has the power to change the world”

MandelaNelson Mandela, iconic representative of hope and peace, believed in the power of the sport to “change the world, to inspire, to unite people, to create hope where there was once despair.”

And when Nelson says something, it motivates people to believe it.

In 1998 I had the honor of attending a specially-convened convocation in Harvard Yard to award Mandela, then President of South Africa, an honorary degree. It was only the third special convocation in the history of Harvard, the others being for George Washington and for Winston Churchill.

I was on my first sabbatical, and spent part of the year at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College. The Institute’s director had two of the highly-prized tickets (these with assigned seating close to the front!) to this momentous occasion. Because of my South African roots, she offered one of them to me. The other went to another Bunting Fellow who had been involved in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

This is all by way of saying that Nelson Mandela was an extraordinary man and a compelling speaker.  Here is the text of his Harvard speech, in which he so humbly accepts his honorary degree, saying:

I know that through this award you are not recognizing any individual achievement, but are rather paying tribute to the struggles and achievements of the South African people as a whole. I humbly accept the award in that spirit, while at the same time wishing you to know that we are not unaware of the great compliment you pay us by conferring this degree at a specially convened convocation.

It was the only time in my life that I have actually felt proud of my South African heritage. And when Mandela spoke, it really did feel (to me and each of the other 25,000 people in the Yard, no doubt) as if we were just sitting in his living room while he told stories over a cup of tea and a plate of rusks and biscuits.

But back to sport.  Though the music makes this Youtube video a bit over the top, it captures an inspiring message about the power of sport, delivered by a great human being.


Kind of makes you want to go out and play, doesn’t it?

And for those who are curious, the Harvard speech (which starts of with some wonderful stories and good humor):