The Olympics, Invictus and something better than gold

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 3, 2010

The 2010 Winter Olympics are being praised widely as an example of excellence and determination for the sake of nation-building. Certainly, our own nation has been drawn more closely together because of the work of the Vancouver organizers and the amazing achievements of our athletes: 26 medals in all, with a record-setting 14 of them gold.

It took a movie I saw over the weekend, however, to help me understand the gold from a wider perspective.

Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s film about Nelson Mandela’s use of sports for nation-building, was playing at the Cochrane Movie House on Feb. 27, and it was free.

In fact, all films in all of its five theatres were free that day. According to Movie House co-owner Hal Wolf, this was to celebrate the theatre complex’s 11th birthday, to showcase its new three-screen addition, and to say thanks for all the community support related to the theatre expansion.

The day-long event was an overwhelming success, Hal tells me, and Invictus played to packed houses for all four showings. (Thanks, Hal!)

The film about the beginnings of Nelson Mandela’s presidency of South Africa addresses the interracial healing so desperately needed in those post-apartheid days. Rugby becomes an agent in that healing process.

With South Africa scheduled to host the 1995 World Cup rugby match, Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) faces the animosity and suspicions between the black majority and the apartheid-linked Springboks, the national rugby team.

In his desire to bring about reconciliation, he challenges the black community, who wanted to eliminate the name “Springbok,” and the rugby team, who were not comfortable even singing the new national anthem.

About the first group, he makes an unexpected visit to a committee meeting and denounces their vote to change the name. Keep the name, but imbue it with new vision, he says, otherwise hate will triumph.

About the rugby team itself, he invites Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to his presidential office. Excusing the staff member who was prepared to pour tea for the two, he pours tea himself, offers it to Pienaar, and gets right down to business.

“How do we inspire ourselves to greatness when nothing less will do?” he asks the captain. “In order to build our nation, we must all exceed our own expectations.”

He earns Pienaar’s respect and cooperation, supports the struggling team with the prestige of his office, and even gets the team out into the townships to inspire dirt-poor kids.

Ultimately, in a close-fought game not unlike our Canada-U.S. hockey final at the Olympics, South Africa defeats New Zealand for the World Cup. But more importantly, Mandela finds vindication for his vision of a reconciliation-based new start for his nation.

The title for the film comes from a poem by the 19th century English poet William Ernest Henley which Mandela kept with him on a scrap of paper during his 27 years as a political prisoner.

The 16-line poem, which celebrates the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of adversity, begins with the lines, “Out of the night that covers me, / Black as the pit from pole to pole,” continues with the lines, “In the fell clutch of circumstance / I have not winced nor cried aloud” and ends with the familiar lines, “I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.”

For Mandela, this certainly implied that not even bitterness and a spirit of revenge would compromise his integrity when the opportunity afforded. Pienaar may have been the captain of his team, but Mandela was the captain of his own soul, and his soul had worthier goals.

In the movie, Mandela is seen giving this poem to Pienaar before the World Cup match. Historically, however, according to Wikipedia, he gave Pienaar another of his favourite quotes, one from Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 speech, “The Man in the Arena.”

Roosevelt’s speech downplays negative memories and sides with the future-oriented risk taker “who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again . . . but who does actually strive to do the deeds; . . . who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. . . .”

In Mandela’s case, the goal for which he dared greatly was not so much winning the World Cup – or a gold medal – as transforming the storm of racism into a rainbow of harmony. His goal was nation-building, and his means was reconciliation.

Or, in the words of another determined leader nearly 2,000 years ago, his was the more excellent way of love.

© 2010 Warren Harbeck

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