Athletes salute Mandela for 'unbelievable things'

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(AP) - When it came to sports, Nelson Mandela had the ability to inspire inspirational figures and leave global stars star-struck.

The former South African president, Nobel Peace Prize winner and anti-apartheid leader died Thursday at 95, bringing a vast outpouring of tributes from some of the most luminous name in sports.

"I got a chance to meet him with my father back in `98," golfer Tiger Woods said. "He invited us to his home, and it was one of the inspiring times I've ever had in my life."

Boxing great Muhammad Ali said Mandela inspired others to "reach for what appeared to be impossible."

"What I will remember most about Mr. Mandela is that he was a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge," Ali said in a statement through his foundation.

NBA star LeBron James said: "In his 95 years, he was able to do unbelievable things not only for South Africa but for the whole world. What he meant to this world while he was able to be here is everything."

Sprinter Usain Bolt posted on Twitter: "One of the greatest human beings ever ... The world's greatest fighter," while Brazilian World Cup winner Pele wrote "He was my hero, my friend."

As much as athletes loved Mandela, he in turn loved sports and appreciated its enormous potential to do good. Nowhere more than in his own country, where he famously used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to knock down the last barriers of apartheid.

Former South Africa rugby captain Francois Pienaar was the athlete who perhaps knew Mandela best and who shared the podium with the South African president after winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup final. Pienaar says Mandela was "my president and my example." He adds that Mandela "united his country when such a task seemed impossible."

The International Olympic Committee will fly the Olympic flag at half-staff for three days.

"A remarkable man who understood that sport could build bridges, break down walls, and reveal our common humanity," IOC President Thomas Bach said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Bach later choked up when recalling his meeting with Mandela in 1996. He asked the former political prisoner if he felt hatred toward the apartheid regime that imprisoned him for 27 years.

"His immediate response was no' but he saw the doubt in my eyes," Bach said Friday. "You don't believe me?' he asked. `I can tell you why. If I hate I would not be a free man anymore.'"

The South African golf great Gary Player paused while speaking at a tournament in South Africa to compose himself and wipe away tears.

"When you think of a man going to jail for all those years for doing the right thing, not the wrong thing, it's hard to comprehend that a man can come out and be like that," Player said. "He was an exceptional man, just exceptional."

FIFA President Sepp Blatter ordered that the 209 flags of the world body's member countries at FIFA headquarters in Switzerland be flown at half-staff.

"It is in deep mourning that I pay my respects to an extraordinary person, probably one of the greatest humanists of our time and a dear friend of mine: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela," Blatter said.

From a cricket test in Australia to basketball games in the United States, Mandela was remembered by players and fans across sport with moments of silence in the hours after his death was announced.

A keen amateur boxer and runner in his youth, Mandela understood the intricacies of rugby, soccer and cricket, the most popular sports in his country, but even games and players the South African wouldn't have been familiar with were touched by him.

"Nelson Mandela was one of the most powerful and inspirational leaders in the world and a great friend of the NBA," NBA Commissioner David Stern said, adding that "his legacy and quest for equality will endure."

Sports was never far from Mandela's mind. He was there when South Africa returned to the Olympic family, won rugby's World Cup, won soccer's African Cup and earned the right to host FIFA's World Cup in 2010, the first in Africa. Mandela's last appearance for an adoring public was when he greeted fans in a packed stadium on the outskirts of Soweto before the 2010 World Cup final.

"When he was honored and cheered by the crowd ... it was as a man of the people, a man of their hearts, and it was one of the most moving moments I have ever experienced," Blatter said.

A string of Spain's World Cup winners from that year and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo all tweeted messages of condolence, with many including photographs of themselves with Mandela. Woods and David Beckham both made a point of meeting Mandela. Woods came out of his audience with a copy of the man's autobiography and Beckham was almost reverent in their 2003 meeting.

"We have lost a true gentleman and a courageous human being," Beckham said on his Facebook page. "It was truly an honor to have known a man who had genuine love for so many people."

South African golfer Ernie Els said that from about 1996 onward Mandela would call him every time he won a tournament. They once exchanged gifts after Mandela visited him at a tournament near the former president's Johannesburg home.

"I've still got that picture in my office in the U.S.," Els said.

But Mandela's interest in sports wasn't just for the grand occasion and the photo op. Recalling his first meeting with a still imprisoned Mandela in 1986 and far from the media spotlight, former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser said Mandela's first question was about one of cricket's greatest players.

"His first remark to me, after hello, was ... `Mr. Fraser is Donald Bradman still alive?'"

Fraser later brought him a bat signed by Bradman. Cricket's finest batsman had written "in recognition of a great unfinished innings" on the bat.

Mandela's embrace of rugby at the 1995 World Cup final is a defining moment and enshrined in the new South Africa's conscience.

By pulling on the green and gold jersey of the Springboks, the national team previously all-white and associated with the apartheid regime, Mandela signaled to all South Africans they should unite. His presentation of the trophy to Pienaar, the Springboks' blond captain, provided a lasting image of reconciliation that politics just couldn't match.

"It was our privilege to have lived in this country during his lifetime," South African Rugby Union President Oregan Hoskins said in a statement. After 1995, Mandela commonly referred to the team that had previously been boycotted abroad for its associations with apartheid as "my beloved Springboks."

Current Springboks captain Jean de Villiers said: "His presence at a test match just lifted the crowd and energized the team _ it is actually hard to describe."

Even for New Zealand's losing rugby captain on that famous June day in 1995, Sean Fitzpatrick, Mandela's effect was too momentous not to appreciate.

"Afterwards, when we were driving back to our hotel crying, to see the sheer enjoyment of everyone running down the streets ... black, white, colored, whatever they were, just arm in arm celebrating sport," Fitzpatrick said. "He saw the bigger picture."


Follow Gerald Imray at

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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