My chance meeting with Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela smiles after being unanimously elected as

Nelson Mandela smiles after being unanimously elected as African National Congress (ANC) president. (July 5, 1991) (Credit: Getty Images)

John Jeansonne

Newsday columnist John Jeansonne. John Jeansonne

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since

bio | email | twitter

This was in 1992, on the morning of the opening ceremonies of the Barcelona Olympics. Apartheid officially had ended in South Africa, allowing that nation's athletes to be welcomed back into the Olympic family after 32 years of isolation, so a colleague and I took the crosstown subway ride to the seaside Olympic Village to seek South African athletes' thoughts on the tangle of sports and politics.

As we were leaving, Nelson Mandela suddenly appeared, trailed by no more than a half-dozen reporters and a TV camera. We had stumbled into an ad hoc news briefing and, given the accidental opportunity, tossed a couple of questions Mandela's way.

It is not every day that one blunders into meeting and addressing a person who truly was changing the world. Mandela -- who passed away Thursday at age 95 -- then was two years past his 27 years of imprisonment for having agitated for blacks' rights, still two years from being voted in as South Africa's first democratically elected president.


PHOTOS:  1918-2013 | With celebs | Cartoonists remember
REACTION: Leaders, celebs, athletes
MORE: Key life events | Complete coverage


A month earlier, with riots in the black townships threatening to slow the process of integration, he had suggested that South African athletes stay away from the Barcelona Games. There were only eight blacks in South Africa's 95-person Olympic delegation. But as he would do in embracing the mostly white national rugby team during the 1995 World Cup, as a unifying force in South Africa's transition away from racist minority rule, Mandela reversed field, choosing a "one-team, one-nation" strategy, another of his many signals for harmony.

"Let's let bygones be bygones," he said that morning in 1992. "Let's concern ourselves with our presence here. I urge you to come along with me, to forget the past and get on with the future."

He posed for cameras in the village with a handful of green-and-yellow-clad athletes -- black and white -- and expressed the often-empty Olympic hope that united sport somehow can lead a splintered world in the right direction.

"It's important for our young people to participate," said Mandela, who lit up to recall his youthful days as a boxer and track athlete when asked about his own sporting inclinations.

"There is no doubt in my mind," he said, "that this is the correct decision, and I am quite satisfied in the racial breakdown of the team. I would have liked it to be a reflection of our population" -- at that point, 26 million of the 32 million South Africans were black -- "but there has to be a starting point."

In South Africa, newspaper editorials had been encouraging Olympic participation as a spur in negotiations between Mandela's black African National Congress and white South African president F.W. de Klerk, and as an emotional way to appeal to the most radical constituents on both sides.

A white South African equestrian in the Mandela group that day, Peter Gotz, reported that "Olympic fever has been raging in South Africa . . . . It's been a very nice gesture to have Mr. Mandela here. He told us, as a team, that he was proud of us, and that the whole country is proud of us. I guess I don't feel so much a part of history as I feel a part of the present and the future."

That dumb-luck crossing of paths more than 20 years ago with such a historic figure was exhilarating, and a comfort to be reminded that a long career of covering sports events doesn't limit one to meaningless frivolity. Among Mandela's beliefs of reconciliation and hope was the acceptance of how sports could grab headlines and wield surprising power, could even be used to narrow a brutal black-white divide in his country.

A person really can bump into heroes in this business.