Nelson Mandela, Arthur Ashe, and the Transformative Power of Sports
By Bill Simons
Our great figures, those who touch our lives and inspire our imagination, have a power and presence: such courage, great vision. Each are remembered for particular gifts. Some, like Lincoln, Churchill, and Martin Luther King, were sublime orators. Others, say Einstein or Edison, emanated scientific genius. With King and Gandhi, there was an almost spiritual transcendence. Lincoln, a gifted politician and unabashed storyteller, combined visionary ideals and a rough and tumble prairie realism and folksy insight that rose to the occasion. For all their greatness, these were real men with real demons and gnawing doubts. Gandhi, Lincoln, King and Nelson Mandela all had issue with women. Churchill liked his cognac, and his views on race were problematic. Still, it was their inexplicable magnificence that moved us.
Now, just one transcendent figure lingers amongst us. And President Nelson Mandela—who is nearing the end of his 95-year odyssey of wonder—brought something that defied logic. In a land infected with a scathing hatred—deep and visceral—he overcame the pain of 27-years of imprisonment to unleash an improbable surge, a wave of healing that allowed seemingly unimaginable beams of reconciliation to shine bright.
His dignity and almost Buddha-like lack of bitterness resonated. Love thy enemy. Turn the other cheek. Beat thy swords into plowshares. Mandela made Biblical ideals seem real and attainable and forged a political miracle for his people, his land, and humanity.
At first, with patient “know thy enemy” wisdom, Mandela won over his sadistic captors at a windswept island jail. Then, almost seamlessly, he went on to turn the tide of a place ruled by bitter hearts and tyrannical divisions. What promised to be a bloodbath became an unfathomable triumph, a multiracial democracy that united seemingly entrenched white racists and incendiary blacks.
Oh, if there were only such a moral genius, a force for good, in the Middle East—or for that matter, in our land—how this world would be better.
But there has been only one Mandela.
The great men we embrace do have some sports connections. Churchill liked the races. There is an Indian cricket stadium named after Gandhi. A great college football heritage is based in Lincoln, Nebraska and to this day Edison’s work illuminates countless sporting events. But of our towering figures, just one loved sports and embraced games.
Certainly, the world was astonished when Mandela, the former freedom fighter and convicted felon, was elected President.
Still, skeptics assured us that like many an anti-colonial hero, he would morph into a vain dictator with diamonds from Antwerp and a villa in Italy. (Wrong, Mandela remained modest and served for just five years.) And certainly, conventional wisdom told us, he wouldn’t be able to unite a country that was flooded with so many rivers of rage and revenge. The land smelled of violence. Blood would flow. No one could possibly turn back the racial and tribal deluge that loomed.
But Mandela—the calm, wise, creative soul, whose name means “shaker of trees”—thought otherwise. He dared to leap outside the box. His prime tool to build nationhood was the controversial Springbok rugby team, created by white supremacist Afrikaaners and emblematic of the macho might of apartheid: a gleeful symbol of triumph for whites, an inviting target of derision for blacks who were eager to jeer the prevailing ethos. After apartheid’s fall, activists eager for payback immediately moved to change the team’s name and beloved colors. But Mandela initiated his jujitsu, turning a clear liability into a transformative asset. Few others knew their enemy so well.
Already, an expert on Afrikaaner culture, Mandela soon mastered the basics of rugby, befriended the Springbok players, and wore the fabled No. 6 Captain’s jersey. Mandela used the team to unite thick-necked racists and raging insurgents, who—much to their own amazement—discovered that after chanting “Nelson, Nelson, Nelson” together in a Rugby stadium, they could go on to build a “warts and all” democracy based on a unison few imagined possible.
Over time there had been other sporting events with big-picture impact. In 1936, Jesse Owens’ short sprints at the Berlin Olympics sent a longstanding message to those backing Hitler’s Aryan Supremacy delusions. Jackie Robinson’s courage opened countless doors. Billie Jean King’s “I am woman, hear me roar” win rearranged our gender landscape. President Nixon’s ping pong diplomacy led to Walmart shelves crowded with Chinese widgets. Likewise, the Springboks’ 1995 overtime win over New Zealand’s mighty Blacks in the World Rugby Cup had a stunning impact. The alchemy was astonishing. Mandela’s use of a bunch of sweaty, burly jocks—pounding and grunting—was nothing less then Houdini-like political magic.
Then again, Mandela—the fitness fanatic who jogged in place every dawn in his cell, did countless fingertip push-ups, and encouraged everyone from his children to his fellow prisoners to get fit—adored African games like ndize, khetha, and thinti, which he described as “a youthful approximation of war … [in which boys] who distinguished themselves were greatly admired, as generals.” As a young man he took up boxing. Sure, he conceded that “my lack of speed … [was not enough] to make up for my lack of power.” But he liked boxing because “when you are circling your opponent, probing his strengths and weaknesses, you are not thinking about his color or social status.” Plus, he found the sport completely reinvigorating. He recalled that in his world, where even revolutionaries got the blues, “After an evening’s workout I would wake up the next morning feeling refreshed [and] ready to take up the fight again.”
Plus, Mandela loved tennis. He played as a young man, recalling, “I was by no means an expert. My forehand was relatively strong, my backhand regrettably weak. But I pursued the sport for exercise, not style… I was a backcourt player who only approached the net when I had a clear slam.”
A key part of the Mandela story is how, after years of a gutsy Gandhi-like disobedience campaign for prisoner rights, he gained the counterintuitive respect of his jailers, who evolved from sadistic brutes into respectful professionals that granted prisoners appropriate privileges. Years later, this same process of transforming his foes was replicated on a larger stage when his diplomatic brilliance led to the demise of apartheid. On Robben Island, the prisoners used their hard-earned rights to paint a huge green rectangle in the middle of their grim prison yard. They then added white lines and put up a net to create the world’s most poignant tennis court.
“[We had our] own Wimbledon,” gushed Mandela. But of course, as with any court, there were issues. Not all the prisoners learned how to play, and those that did had to deal with the universal issue of court time. Like most hackers, Mandela was more than inventive at explaining his losses. After one setback, he informed his then-wife Winnie that he played poorly because he couldn’t concentrate from thinking about her. Still, as time went on, it became a heady honor for jailers and visitors alike to play with Mandela. Go figure.
Another privilege the prisoners gained was the right to listen to the radio, and Mandela famously tuned into the fabled 1980 McEnroe vs. Borg Wimbledon final, some 6,000 miles away. A decade and a half later, in one of the more bizarre (“Attila the Hun, say howdy to Mother Theresa”) moments we could imagine, McEnroe, whose brand is all about unrepentant rage, met Mr. Reconciliation himself. Naturally, Mandela embraced Mac with a welcoming grace. McEnroe later said he’d pay a million bucks for a video of the moment.
Mandela’s tennis moments go on and on. There was an international charity tennis tournament and gala in his honor that drew tennis’ glitterati to Cape Town. And like Churchill, Mandela loved to paint—in retirement, he created an entire series of whimsical paintings based on tennis.
Whimsical tennis paintings are delightful, but Mandela’s fateful connection with Arthur Ashe—the athlete who campaigned most strongly against apartheid—was a whole other matter.
For decades, anti-apartheid politics was intense and contentious. Should one follow the pleas of activists and the UN to isolate South Africa’s apartheid rulers by boycotting the nation or instead, should one say that art, sport, and economics have their own dynamic, above the fray and independent of politics? Many, like Paul Simon, the Supremes, McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Brad Gilbert, became involved in the harsh controversy.
At first, Ashe wasn’t even aware of the reach of apartheid, and he presumed he could play the South African Open. But his South African friend Cliff Drysdale quickly informed him that he wouldn’t even be allowed into a land where racial rules prevailed. In his book Days of Grace, Ashe recalls that another South African pro, Ray Moore, thought there just might be a way out of the morass. “I think,” Moore suggested, “There is one man in South Africa capable of leading my country out of this mess”
“Is he white?” Ashe asked.
“No,” Moore replied. “He is a black man, a lawyer imprisoned on Robben Island … His name is Nelson Mandela.”
“Mandela? I’ve never heard of him.”
“Well, you will,” Moore insisted. “In fact, I think he will become president of South Africa one day.”
Over time, Mandela and Ashe proved to have much in common. Both were renaissance thinkers with deep wells of calm, possessing a quiet reflective nature that allowed them to adeptly evolve, change course, master a range of challenges, and quietly inspire. And both shared a burning desire for justice that exceeded their deep appreciation of decorum. Over the years, both Mandela, from inside his jail cell, and Ashe, from outside and using his platform of fame, campaigned against apartheid.
Ashe would go through two phases. He began by fighting for years to get a visa to visit South Africa in order to be the first black to ever play the South African Open—on the condition that the stadium be open to both blacks and whites. From 1973 through 1977, Ashe would visit South Africa four times. There, while briefly integrating sports events, he “looked apartheid directly in the face, [and] saw the appalling WHITES ONLY and NONWHITES ONLY signs, the separate and drastically unequal facilities very much like those of my childhood in Virginia. I saw the sneer of superiority on the faces of many whites, and the look of obsequiousness, fatalism, cynicism, and despair on the faces of many blacks.”
Ashe’s trips, including his run to the final of the 1973 South African Open, were sensational happenings. While an angry few raged and called him an Uncle Tom, claiming his presence gave legitimacy to the apartheid regime, most saw him as a role model and beacon—a successful African-American in a black culture too familiar with failure.
Black writer Mark Mathabane said Ashe was “the first truly free black man” he had met, and wondered, “How could a black man play such excellent tennis, move about the court with such self-confidence, trash a white man, and be cheered by white people? …The more I read about the world of tennis and Ashe’s role in it, the more I began to dream of its possibilities. What if I too were someday to attain the same fame and fortune as Ashe? Would whites respect me as they did him? Would I be as free as he? The dreams were tantalizing.”
But the real world struggle to abolish apartheid was daunting and bloody. Amidst heated debates, Ashe became a fierce advocate for the international boycott of South Africa. Invoking Mandela’s position, he convinced the ATP to prohibit the creation of two new proposed South African tournaments. Ashe also moved to have South Africa banned from Davis Cup play, and convinced John McEnroe’s father to stop his son from playing a $600,000 exhibition against Bjorn Borg in Bophuthatswana, South Africa.
Then, in a move that Ashe felt probably cost him his job as Davis Cup captain, he took to the streets and participated in an anti-apartheid demonstration outside the UN, joining the likes of Coretta Scott King and Harry Belafonte as one of 3,000 demonstrators arrested outside of the South African embassy in Washington.
All the while, Mandela was reading Ashe’s writings and telling the world that, once he got out of prison, the first person he wanted to talk to was a tennis player—Arthur Ashe.
Eventually, when apartheid at last tumbled, Mandela told the world, “I stand before you not as a prisoner but as a humble son of a free people.” Soon after, New York City celebrated the triumph with a ticker-tape parade and a town hall meeting at City College. There the circle was completed. Ashe recalled the intimate moment:
“I watched [New York City mayor David Dinkins] go over to Mandela and whisper in his ear. I saw Nelson’s head raise abruptly, and he broke into a beautiful smile.
“Arthur is here?” he asked, with obvious surprise and delight.
“He’s right here,” David said, turning to me.
“Oh my brother,” Nelson said, looking straight at me. “Come here!”
He threw his arms around me and held me for a moment in a most affectionate embrace. He told me that in prison, he had read my three-volume work A Hard Road to Glory, about black American athletes.”
Ashe noted what so many felt, that for Mandela, “to have spent twenty-seven years in jail … to have been deprived of the whole mighty center of one’s life, and then to emerge apparently without a trace of bitterness, alert and ready to lead one’s country forward, may be the most extraordinary individual human achievement that I have witnessed in my lifetime.”
The connection between Mandela and Ashe had evolved into the most significant international bond ever between a politician and an athlete. After all, the two agreed that, as Mandela wrote, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite that little else has … It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”
Mandela and Ashe would meet again in Johannesburg, London, and then in New York, at the Waldorf Astoria where, with the onslaught of Ashe’s deadly malady, their roles were oddly reversed. With courage and wisdom, Mandela the student, learned about Ashe’s new cause, AIDS awareness. When the end was approaching for tennis’ great humanitarian, Mandela wrote to Ashe, “I can never forget my own joy at meeting you. I hope you feel my embrace across the continents and that it serves to let you know that we love you and wish you well.”
Ironically, the world is now turning across the continents with love to South Africa to embrace a man like no other, a man whose days on this earth may be limited but whose grace, majesty, and courage knows no limits. And as Einstein said of Gandhi, so we might say of Mandela: “Future generations will struggle to believe that there existed such a man as him on earth.”