"Sport has the power to change the world...it has the power to inspire" This quote from Nelson Mandela has struck a chord with me and opened my eyes to the usefulness of the tool that is sport.
I have always struggled with the idea that what I'm doing is purely a selfish pursuit. I row to compete and win medals, to make myself as good as I can be so that one day I can say I was the best in the world at something. But the toing and froing in my mind comes when I think of the time I spend training, improving my self, helping my own ego develop, what gives me the right to do that? I could be pursuing something much more worthwhile, important to the world or others around me, I could be doing some real good.
Listening to Radio 2 just a few minutes ago on my return from training I heard the story of the 1995 World cup in South Africa where Mandela wore the Springbok jersey throughout the match and presented the Web Ellis cup to Francois Pienaar of the World Cup winning Springbok team. The Springbok emblem was despised by black South Africans during apartheid, rugby in particular was for the white elite. When Mandela became president he vowed to keep the tradition and publicly showed his forgiveness to the prejudice by proudly wearing the shirt during the World cup final. A humbling action, a masterful plan.
The effect of this shameful segregation and restrictions during the apartheid years was not just confined to South African peoples. Shockingly when the All Blacks toured South Africa they were forced to leave their Maori contingent behind and out of the team. There was uproar in New Zealand with more than 150,000 people signing a petition opposing the tour under the slogan 'No Maoris - No Tour'. The England cricket team denied selection to talented Basil D'Oliveira their black South African player when traveling to South Africa for the Test. Small examples of the far reaching spread and strength of the diseased beliefs of the apartheid regime. To put this all into perspective, not even Hitler could prevent Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe competing in Berlin during the 1936 Olympics despite his deplorable beliefs. It seems shocking that this was ever possible, but thankfully due to the great man Nelson Mandela, the strength of his character after 27 years of imprisonment and the un-fathomable forgiveness to the perpetrators of his suffering over all those years, this regime no longer exists.
Mandela knew that sport could be used as a tool to show how communities, races, people of all walks of life from all over the world could work together in teams, compete against each other bridging huge divides in societies across the world. To Mandela sport was more than just a game, it was a way to help others look beyond the colour of our skin and to lead a pathway forward instead of looking for reprisal for past actions.
We are obviously now in different times where sport can be used for good in so many other ways. One obvious point that springs to mind is to use sport to give youngsters opportunities to create a life on a different tangent to their current pathway. This is where i can do my tiny bit in my limited time as an athlete. I can encourage youngsters to take up sport (not necessarily rowing of course!) and improve their prospects, well being, self esteem and hopefully create well rounded individuals who have goals and aspirations for themselves. I have always strived to be the best I can be at whatever it is I do, I realise now that this isn't just my selfish pursuit. I have this opportunity to inspire and teach others to do the same so that whatever it is a young person chooses to do, sport or not, they reach their potential.
The death of Nelson Mandela is a momentous occasion. People throughout the world are affected by the loss of this great man who has done so much not just for South Africa, not just for equality but for each and every one of us in all walks of life. This man has opened our eyes to what is right and just and with his passing he has made a whole new generation aware. This I think has been his final gift.