Monday, May 31, 2010
Sports often become the allegory for other events. Father's Day has families replaying Field of Dreams where baseball provides the connection between a resentful adult son and his deceased father. Football is the backdrop for improving racial relations in Remember the Titans. Even soccer has been the means for a daughter to earn her father's respect in Gracie or break loose from traditions while still honoring her roots in Bend it Like Beckham. But this year South Africa invites the world to its home to show its political, economic, and social renovations. South Africa won its bid for the World Cup in 2004 just 10 years after officially abolishing apartheid. The World Cup has become not only an allegory for what the world can achieve but for how people previously oppressed both politically and economically can triumph. No matter if South Africa wins their first match against Mexico on June 11, as a nation they will have the pride of showcasing their independence and growth.
But their first opportunity came in 1995, one year after apartheid was entirely abolished and just months into Nelson Mandela's first year as president of South Africa. That year South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup. Their team, the Springboks, was all-white with one lone black player, Chester Williams. Mandela, however, saw the team as a significant binding symbol for his country in turmoil. The slogan "One Team, One Country" epitomized Mandela's vision for what a sport could achieve. He met opposition from both blacks and whites for his support of the "Boks," but he recognized that if they could win the World Cup the victory could be a moment of pride to be shared by everyone in the country. The movie Invictus and the ESPN documentary The 16th Man chronicle these watershed moments for a country teetering on the brink of either social collapse or political unity. When Mandela, a former black political prisoner, handed the World Cup trophy to captain Francois Pienaar, a white member of the former ruling class, it was against the background of a united nation of sports fans both black and white who for that moment felt the kinship of a shared victory. You couldn't write a better Hollywood script.
Most youth players were born after the abolishment of apartheid and long after the Civil Rights Act in the U.S. But it's important to recognize that not too many years ago many of the sports images we take for granted couldn't and didn't exist. Sports have always been a means to highlight and overcome injustices. Jesse Owens made mincemeat of Hitler's Aryan hopes in the 1936 Olympics with grace and humility, proving that no one race has the monopoly on talent and class. Integrated sports teams are now not only accepted but expected. Even golf, which is often played on private golf courses with strict membership policies, has evolved. Part of getting golf included in the Olympics is whether or not it is played at all levels "without discrimination with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play."
Sports have also been used as one tool to put pressure on discriminatory practices. In South Africa athletes faced ostracism from major world events including the Olympics, rugby friendlies, and soccer competitions because of their country's policy of apartheid. Add to that economic trade embargos, including the British actors' union refusing to allow the sale of British T.V. programs to South Africa. In 1992 most of these bans were lifted as the apartheid policies were slowly repealed. So bringing the World Cup to Africa for the first time and giving South Africa the stage for this event has greater significance than any other World Cup. A stable shift of power happened in 1994 and a continued growth to equality and integration has established South Africa as an example of how the end of oppression doesn't need to lead to instability and continued violence.
Did the Rugby World Cup set the foundation for a smooth transition of power? That's probably giving one sporting event too much credit. But it certainly was one of the defining moments in South Africa coming together as "A Rainbow Nation" as Mandela called it. My sons are African American, and we had hoped to afford a trip to South Africa for this World Cup not only because we love soccer but because for the boys' heritage this is a watershed moment. But we will have to content ourselves with watching on TV with all the other millions of soccer fans. While we watch hopefully we will not forget the historical canvas on which this sporting event plays out. There will always be distrust, hatred, prejudice, and domination from one group towards another. It's human nature. But remembering that 20 years ago the relatives of the black players on South Africa's soccer team couldn't vote, had to live in areas specifically designated for how they were defined racially, couldn't go to university with whites, couldn't set foot in whites only beaches, restaurants, and stores, couldn't travel outside of their designated areas without government permission, and for most wouldn't have been allowed to play for the national team indicates how significant this change is for the country, the continent and the world. The official slogan of this World Cup is "Ke Nako (It's Time). Celebrate Africa's Humanity." I'm ready.