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on second thought

Mandela turned to rugby for new start for South Africa

Nelson Mandela wanted the poorest of the country’s poor to touch and feel a new game, what always had been a “white’’ game, and he wanted the players on the bus to do the same.

Ammar Awad/Reuters

Nelson Mandela wanted the poorest of the country’s poor to touch and feel a new game, what always had been a “white’’ game, and he wanted the players on the bus to do the same.

I generally steer clear of sports movies. For the most part, they are cliché-ridden and the action scenes too often don’t resemble the real thing. I report and opine on sports, a fantasy-based industry, so I obviously prefer my fantasy sports scenes to be as close to the real fake stuff as possible.

Oh, and sports movies generally depict sportswriters and broadcasters to be total morons, and these days I have Twitter and e-mail to remind me of that. Who needs to pay $10 or $12 at the cineplex for the sweet (and sour) nothings that get delivered free of charge?

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My sports cinema aversion aside, Nelson Mandela’s death on Thursday reminded me of how moved I was by “Invictus,’’ the 2009 sports drama, directed by Clint Eastwood, in which Morgan Freeman depicted Mandela’s brilliant courtship of South Africa’s national rugby team and how he so deftly, so brilliantly used sports to help galvanize his fragile, splintered country.

Fresh on the job as the country’s first black president, charged with bridging a gargantuan, centuries-old racial apartheid divide, and propping up the shaky foundation of a new democracy, Mandela turned to a game. A boxer in his younger days, he surrendered his personal disdain for South Africa’s rugger team — disdain tracing to the sport’s intense popularity among the white ruling class that kept him jailed for 27 years — and implored the Springboks to try to win the 1995 World Cup.

Mandela wrapped a big ol’ bear hug around Francois Pienaar, the broad-shouldered and very white captain of the team, and said he needed him, that all South Africa needed him and his boys. Mandela wore the team colors, the Springboks hat and jersey. He also put the entire squad in a bus, all but one of the players white, and sent them kicking and passing and scrumming through scores of the country’s black, shanty neighborhoods as rugby Pied Pipers.

Mandela wanted the poorest of the country’s poor to touch and feel a new game, what always had been a “white’’ game, and he wanted the players on the bus to do the same. Above all, he wanted all the whites and all the blacks of his country to witness it. He did all of that while holding up the itsy bitsy hope that South Africa, only eligible for the tournament because it was the host country, would win the World Cup.

The championship was his rallying cry, but the pre-tournament village-to-village tour was how Mandela truly spun his political, his social, his humanitarian gold.

And lo and behold, though maybe somewhat beside the point, the South Africans won the whole thing, rubbing out mighty New Zealand by three points in the title game. The win itself was as improbable as Team USA’s hockey gold medal in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid, in which the likes of local boys Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig cut down the vaunted Russians. But as significant and timely and prideful as that American win was, even that paled in comparison to all the complex forces at play in South Africa winning the rugby World Cup in 1995.

Herb Brooks in 1980 may have pulled off a Miracle, but Mandela in ’95 pulled off the Impossible.

“It always seems impossible until it is done,’’ Mandela once said.

If you haven’t seen “Invictus” (Latin for “unconquered”), or read the book, Mandela’s death last week makes it all the more poignant to do it now. Cambridge-born Matt Damon, though five inches shorter than Pienaar, plays the rock-ribbed Springboks captain, and does so with what seems a convincing South African accent. Although, it’s probably a safe bet that it makes South Africans cringe just as I do when I hear someone fabricate a Boston accent.

We will be told again very soon — when the Winter Games are staged in February in Sochi, Russia — of the great healing and community-building powers of sports. The International Olympic Committee will espouse all of that, and NBC will drill it home to American viewers across its myriad broadcast and digital platforms.

Under that iconic five ring logo, we’ll be reminded again and again and again, that we are all one. The Games, they say, negate our differences, bridge our divides, place a tourniquet to the world’s wounds. Like the sensational Veg-O-Matic, they slice, they dice, they do it all . . . isn’t that amazing?!

Oh, brother, if only.

The Games, of which I have been assigned 11 times (1988-2010), both Winter and Summer, are a spectacle. They are a joy. And, yes, for 2-3 weeks, they bring together mostly teenagers and 20-somethings, around a humongous hakuna matata campfire, and most everyone on campus focuses on the task at hand and cares little about race or nationality, politics or social standing.

Then come the closing ceremonies and all of those athletes head home, a few of them with ribbons around their necks and medals bobbing on their chests, to countries and governments and political hierarchies that haven’t changed anything in those 2-3 weeks.

The Games, like all sports, are chiefly about fantasy and escapism. Reality runs on its own clock, with no Olympic flame to warm the cold, harsh truths that too many countries ignore or work hard to hide.

Did the 2008 Games in Beijing profoundly, if at all, improve human rights in China? No. Will the 2014 Games in Sochi begin to reverse the Russian government’s hard-wired homophobia? If you think so, then Vladimir Putin has a bridge in Belarus and a pair of tickets to a Pussy Riot concert to sell you.

Yet it can be done. Sports can change thinking, bring unity, move mountains. We have Mandela’s genius entwined in South Africa’s 1995 World Cup to prove it. But let’s not overstate that either. Some 18 years later, news stories tell us there is still much work to be done in South Africa in terms of race and social equality. One idea, one dream, one win did not a new or perfect country make.

But in need of a place to start, in the middle of a broken place, Mandela found sports. He took a game, added his vision, courage, and conviction, and made the world a better place. He gave us man and sports at their very best.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s ‘‘On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.
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