All over the world, people from every religion and nation and culture and political system are mourning the death of Nelson Mandela. He fought against racial hatred, persevered in unjust prisons, triumphed in free and democratic elections, served with wisdom and vision as President of his nation, and lived every day with a gentleness that moves hearts and minds to love. He was a hero of democracy, a hero of the law, a hero of post colonialism, a hero of reconciliation, a hero of goodness. He was South Africa’s father but he belonged to every nation. He was one person who believed enough to give his life for the freedom of the human spirit but he made it possible for every person to believe in giving themselves for the good of others.
But athletes, he was your champion too.
After he left his role as President of South Africa, he learned of the cause of people with intellectual disabilities and he must have known right away that your cause was his cause too. When he heard that people with intellectual disabilities were often told that they didn’t count, he must’ve recognized how wrong that message was. When he heard that people with intellectual disabilities were often put into institutions against their will and denied their freedom, he must’ve recognized how wrong that practice was. When he heard that in South Africa and throughout the world, people with intellectual disabilities were denied the chance to go to school, denied the chance to see a doctor, denied the chance to live openly in communities, he must’ve known that your cause was his cause too. And when he learned that the Special Olympics movement was working to change all that, using the power of sports and the unbridled spirit of self advocates, he knew that your cause was his cause too.
Beginning in 2001, Nelson Mandela became an outspoken champion of the Special Olympics movement and of your cause, athletes. He came to Robben Island for Special Olympics and lit our torch, the Flame of Hope, with Ricardo Thornton who, like him, had been imprisoned unjustly — in an institution in the United States. He traveled to Dublin to celebrate the Special Olympics World Games, where he was introduced by Bono and U2 as “The President of everyone who loves and fights for freedom.” He cheered you, athletes, and talked to our youth leaders and said, “You, the athletes, are ambassadors of the greatness of humankind. Your achievements remind us of the potential to greatness that resides in every one of us.” When he celebrated his birthday in 2004, he dedicated the entire day to Special Olympics athletes who came by the thousands to Polokwane where he blew out candles on a huge cake and cheered for the athletes saying, “Amandla Awethu” which means “power to the people,” a phrased used in rallies across South Africa against the apartheid regime. When I asked him the secret of his leadership genius, he answered quickly: “In prison, I learned humility and simplicity. That’s what the athletes of Special Olympics are teaching the world, Tim. Humility and Simplicity. These are the gifts that are most important if we are to achieve a more inclusive world.”
Today, the world mourns. It doesn’t matter that he lived a full life and gave himself to us all for 95 years. We are no less heartbroken. His star was so bright, his smile so gentle, his mind so powerful, his heart so big. We are without our champion and we are heartbroken.
But we are also believers that a spirit so large can never be defeated. So while we mourn, we also ready ourselves to carry his spirit forward, to do our part, to carry on the mission of freedom and reconciliation and inclusion.
For me, the best champions of Nelson Mandela’s legacy are you athletes of Special Olympics. He was tough and so are you. He was wise and so are you. He loved sports and loved to play and so do you. He was forgiving and so are you. He believed in himself and others and so do you.
In the days ahead, many people will say many things about Nelson Mandela. As they do, remember athletes that he was your champion too. He believed in you. It is now your time to fulfill his legacy and unify the world.