How Nelson Mandela Used Sporting Patriotism for Good

In Tännsjö and Tamburrini’s excellent edited collection, ‘Values in Sport’, Paul Gomberg and Nick Dixon debate whether patriotism in sport is a good thing. Whilst Dixon argues that a ‘moderate patriotism’ can be morally defended, Gomberg presents a vehement argument against it. For Gomberg, patriotism is morally equivalent to jingoism and any patriotic attitude can be used for nationalistic purposes: “..moderate patriotism, even as cultivated in sports, gives way in these situations to the most barbaric, fascist attacks on others, all in the service of the capitalist ruling groups who initiate this process.” (p98)

However, when Nelson Mandela chose to wear a Springbok shirt at the Rugby World Cup final in 1995 he showed how patriotism can be a force for peace rather than war. Mandela wanted South Africa to be for all South Africans, and in a climate of uncertainty where many white South Africans were fearful of the future and retribution for the past, this simple patriotic gesture helped allay fears and heal rifts.

Mandela and Pienaar 1995 RWC

Mandela showed how patriotic identity in sport can be morally acceptable. And Gomberg is wrong in his argument that “being moderately patriotic is like being a little bit pregnant” (p87) – this analogy is just incorrect. Being patriotic is not the same as being jingoistic, rather it is about holding and forming an identity. Mandela wore the Springbok shirt not to show a hatred of other nations but rather to show that there is a common humanity between us all and he could identify as much with the white South African Francois Pienaar as he could with those that had been oppressed by racism in all corners of the globe.

References:

Dixon, N. (2000) ‘A Justification of Moderate Patriotism in Sport’

Gomberg, P. (2000) ‘Patriotism in Sport and War’

Both in:

Tännsjöm T. and Tamburrini, C. (2000) Values in Sport. London: Routledge.

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