Author: Will Butterworth, Frequent Contributor
“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all kinds of discrimination.” – Nelson Mandela, May 25, 2000
One of the most iconic photos of Nelson Mandela in his lifetime is the picture of him, in a Springboks jersey, handing the Webb Ellis Cup to the captain of the South African captain Francois Pienaar after they had won the 1995 Rugby World Cup on home-soil. Mandela saw the opportunity to use sport as a tool to unite a divided nation. Rugby itself had been a source of division. During the Apartheid era, black South Africans would cheer whoever was playing against South Africa. Rugby was a white man’s sport and for many a symbol of Apartheid South Africa. In 1995, the Springboks only had one black player in the entire squad. But Mandela set off on the notion that “the Boks belonged to all of us now”. He had meetings with the captain and got them to sing the new national anthem. And in the end when they won the World Cup in Johannesburg, the sport had united a country in a way little else could have done. It was a symbol of reconciliation in a deeply divided country and it demonstrated the power of sport to bring people together.
In 2016, a year when politics has been so divisive, sport and in particular sporting miracles has shown its power to unite.
This has been the year of the underdog. Leicester City, 5,000-1 outsiders, won the English Premier League, the Chicago Cubs won the Baseball World Series for the first time in 108 years, and the Irish rugby team beat New Zealand for the first time in their 111-year history. To put those achievements into perspective, the odds of the Pope playing professional football for Rangers was 4,000 to 1, there were only 1.7 billion people on the planet when the Cubs last won the World Series, and Ireland had not beaten New Zealand in 28 matches, conceding over 800 points in the process.
These miracles have united hugely people in divisive times and in divided places. For example, Leicester is hugely diverse. It narrowly missed out on becoming the first city in the UK to have a white minority population in the 2011 census. Yet it was united by an unlikely triumph with over 200,000 turning up for its Parade. In Chicago, this year there have been an average of 82 homicides a week. However, sport united the city, at least momentarily, as millions turned out for the Cubs parade after their World Series win.
What I think all this shows is the power of sport. Sport is at its most powerful when a team triumphs against all odds. No other vehicle is as effective at breaking down barriers or getting people to be united within such diversity. I think this also particularly pertinent in current political times. No matter who you support or what you believe in, it is hard to ignore the divide in modern politics. Whilst I am not trying to say that sport will be a solution to all that is wrong in the world, it does have a power to speak to everyone, young or old, rich or poor in a way politicians cannot.