Sports power to unite people

Thousands of fans cheer together for their respective national teams.

As the 2018 FIFA World Cup sounded off in mid-July, it brought to a close arguably the biggest sporting event on the world calendar. With more than 3 billion viewers tuning in for a little over a month, one is left to ponder the real purpose of a tournament like this.

The World Cup is a huge money spinner with advertising revenues reaching well over USD 1,5 billion and TV rights being sold for USD 1,8 billion. The income generated by the host nation is an impressive figure, boosting local businesses and inoculating the national economy with an inspiring injection of revenue generated from hundreds of thousands of zealous sporting fans streaming in from all over the globe.

We have accepted that sports is big business and that players are sold and bought like commodities with sponsors and advertisers wielding their powerful influence over the sporting world. In the business of sports, the mark of a good tournament is often connected to revenue but rather surprisingly the figures of this year’s World Cup show that there was less income generated in Russia than in Brazil four years ago. Yet, the global village is buzzing with the sentiment that the 2018 World Cup in Russia has been the best tournament since the debut of the competition in 1930.

The reason for this approving view of the 2018 World Cup can possibly be found in the character of this year’s tournament. During the competition in Russia we saw many established and strong nations fall while the underdogs’ performance exceeded expectations, thrilling the crowds and injecting us all with a good dose of hope. It served as a reminder of the true purpose and power of sports — its ability to unify and inspire nations to accomplish greater things.

South Africa has experienced the transformative power of sports and seen how it can renew the mindset of a nation. The identity of a nation often translates onto the sports field and vice versa. In 1995 and 1996 respectively, the South African national rugby and soccer teams reached the finals of two of the world’s biggest sporting tournaments, changing the way South Africans viewed themselves as a nation and their future together.

The well-known image of former Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar, and the then newly elected President Nelson Mandela embracing after the Springboks conquered the All Blacks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final will forever be etched into the memory of the South African nation.

The nation was inspired to believe that the best future is one where we stand together. There was a wave of hope that swept throughout the country that day as people from all different races, cultures and creeds saw first-hand the vision Madiba had for South Africa, as a country unified despite our overflowing diversity — unified as the rainbow nation. This on-field success spilled into 1996 when Bafana Bafana inspired the nation by lifting South Africa’s first, and only, African Cup of Nations trophy.

A sport that unites people of all ages.

These victories sparked pride in the South African nation and a belief that we could transcend society’s norms and be an example to the world of how a diverse nation with a difficult past could reconcile and perform at a world-class level. The impact of these victories had on the country’s successful transition into peace cannot be overlooked.

Many African countries still struggle to reconcile their past and present after breaking the shackles of colonialism, descending into civil war and chaos. South Africa’s sporting successes served as evidence that a united future was not only possible, but in fact the best kind of future — because together we can have victory. Through this, sports revealed its true power and its true purpose: to unite.

Since the dawn of the professional era in the late 1980s the public’s view of the sporting world and its purpose has significantly changed. The business of sport is booming and all the money and politics involved sometimes produces so much clutter that it is difficult to filter through all the noise to find the heart behind it all. Fortunately, the true character of sports was seen in this year’s World Cup, with the progress of the Croatian team being the prime example. Even though France eventually lifted the trophy, some felt Croatia were the true winners.

Less than 30 years ago, the small nation found itself in civil war fighting for independence from Yugoslavia and Serbia. When they gained their independence in 1991 the nation was divided into pro-Croatia and pro-Serbian citizens, which led to the Croatian War that lasted for four years. Upon its end, Croatia qualified for the FIFA Football World Cup for the first time. In 1998, they managed to reach the semi-finals and while introducing themselves to the world they united the divided nation under one banner.

Sports is a powerful weapon that inspires nations to greatness. The notion that a victory could spark a remarkable upturn in the culture and economy of a nation is born out of the multitude of Cinderella stories that are written in the chronicles of sporting history. Various examples of this can be seen in the past century.

As countries achieve independence and detach themselves from war it is often the sports teams that lead the way and inspire their people to greater heights and peaceful resolutions. As the money and marketability of sports grow, at times to an insatiable point, the hope that lies at the foundation of this world is that people won’t forget the true purpose of sports — to unite divided hearts and provide hope for a better future.

As the late Tat’uNelson Mandela once shared:

“Sports have the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sports can create hope, where there was once only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination. Sports is the game of lovers.”