Hurrah for sport's transforming power

Hurrah for sport's transforming power
The Singapore contingent at the opening ceremony of the SEA Games in Myanmar last December. It will be Singapore's turn to host the event next year, and a good showing will add cheer to the nation's 50th birthday.

It was June 24, 1995. A warm wintry afternoon in Johannesburg, South Africa, before the start of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final between the hosts and the seemingly indomitable New Zealand All Blacks.

A proud black man strolled onto the Ellis Park stadium pitch, in full sight of the 63,000 in attendance and millions of TV viewers worldwide. An oversized green jersey was draped on his sinewy frame and, on its back, printed in gold, was the revered No. 6 of Springbok captain Francois Pienaar.

That man was the late Nelson Mandela, the first black president of his nation. His gesture that day was a pivotal moment in South Africa's path to reconciliation and post-apartheid democracy.

By embracing the prancing antelope of the white Afrikaners, he signalled to his countrymen, and the world, that it was time to leave behind the decades of hatred and racism. On that day, many believe, the "rainbow nation" began to bond as one.

Mr Mandela, who spent years training as a youth amateur boxer, instinctively understood the importance of competitive sport. No other platform possesses its unique capacity for gathering a disparate people and uniting them with a common purpose.

With its great, captive audiences, competitive sport at the highest level evolves from a mere game into a vehicle with the potential to inspire and drive people towards bigger causes.

The United States' National Basketball Association (NBA), for example, owns a global community outreach initiative called NBA Cares. Since 2005, the league and teams have raised more than US$230 million (S$288 million) for charity and provided more than 2.8 million hours of community service.

Top football club Barcelona FC of Spain reminds its estimated fan base of 300 million worldwide of the importance of charity work by donating US$2 million a year to Unicef to keep the name of the United Nations children's agency on its jersey.

Football fans are known for their fierce loyalty, which has ignited many feisty rivalries such as that between English clubs Manchester United and Liverpool.

But every four years when the World Cup - which attracts 3.2 billion viewers - comes along, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard swop their clubs' red for England's white. Following suit, their local fans put allegiances aside in the name of national pride.

As opposed to the days when warriors and knights carried their country's flags on their spears and shields, today's gladiators have their nation's colours sewn onto their jerseys and do battle in the sporting arenas.

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