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Playing the Enemy by John Carlin

Release date: 03rd September, 2008
Publisher: Penguin

List Price: £18.99
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Playing the Enemy by John Carlin

4sportsbooks.co.uk price: £9.49, saving 50% on rrp

Do sport and politics mix? In the UK, it's certainly the case that politicians, invariably spotting a chance to align themselves with winners, are amongst the first to line up for photo-shoots whenever their sporty compatriots do well. Most people see right through such tawdry victory-by-association attempts; indeed, because the electorate appreciates that the guy in the suit next to a gold medal winner was the same one more recently voting for the sale of your local school playing field, such efforts have become irrelevant, almost pathetic.
We rightly react negatively to such shallow displays, yet sport has been used for more sinister political purposes, as eastern Bloc countries showed for almost four decades: winning Olympic gold became an extension of state glorification and thousands of drug-fuelled competitors suffered as a consequence.
What happened in South Africa in 1995 when the Springbok side became world rugby champions was a rarity, an occasion when sport and politics worked in unison: it presented a unique opportunity for the country's black president, Nelson Mandela, to embrace what was perceived as the white man's game for the good of the nation. Mandela did this and Springbok captain Francois Pienaar reciprocated.
Mandela's appearance at the Rugby World Cup final wearing a green and yellow number six shirt (the same as Pienaar's) was symbolic for it confirmed to South Africa's whites that their continued presence was welcomed, their safety assured.
When Mandela presented the World Cup trophy to Pienaar and thanked him for winning, Pienaar, the epitome of the rugged, blond Afrikaner, replied, "No Mr President, thank you for what you have done for our country."
Of course, it could be argued that the strategic placement of two microphones on the presentation stage was a tad cynical, but given what both men sought to do - to play a part in uniting a deeply divided nation while occupying a magnificent sporting arena, this can be overlooked. For a while following South Africa's victory over New Zealand, the notion of a shared identity persisted.
Prior to the tournament, Mandela had worked tirelessly to persuade his followers of the significance of embracing rugby union, a hated symbol of Afrikaner rule.
While imprisoned, Mandela learnt Afrikaans, he read Afrikaner history and began to appreciate that these people were, like his ANC supporters, Africans. He concluded that sport, and in particular rugby, offered a way for him to win them over.
Pienaar was summoned to Pretoria in 1994, a few weeks after Mandela's inauguration. He recalls being terrified until Mandela greeted him like a political equal: "Ah Francois, how very good of you to come." The moment put Pienaar at ease and made him appreciate what was at stake during the World Cup.
The final itself was a brutal affair which concluded with that rare moment when anything appeared possible for South Africa. Apparently, the film rights to John Carlin's Playing the Enemy have been sold with Morgan Freeman pencilled in to play Mandela in what appears to be the ultimate feel-good movie. The problem is that in the intervening 13 years under the ANC, South Africa has once more become a state where racial identity is just as important for access to opportunities as it was under the old white regime.
Perhaps sport and politics cannot mix, but Mandela tried putting them together with the help of his victorious rugby side. If we could ignore what's happened since, it would be an uplifting tale, but sadly, South Africa does not operate in a time-warp.


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