Alan Hubbard

Sport has the power to change the world the world. These words might have been uttered in his infinite wisdom by Confucius had the old Chinese philosopher been around today.

Instead, it is left to a more modern sage to proclaim one of life's greatest truisms some 20 years ago.

Nelson Mandela famously recognised the power of sport. 

During his 27 years in prison on Robben Island, he strongly endorsed boycotts of South African teams at international sports events, notably in the passionately-supported rugby. 

South Africa was also banned from the Olympics from 1964 to 1992 and suspended by different international sports federations.

Upon his release, when he became President in 1994, he used sport which was so religiously revered in South Africa to play a major role in ending the scandal of apartheid, and restore his beloved country to international respectability.

The turning point came in 1995 when he he attended the Rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg. 

Rugby had traditionally been the sport of the white minority but Mandela supported it as equally as he did football. 

By wearing the Springboks' jersey at the final of the World Cup, he transformed a once divided people into one which unified and brought them together.

Mandela, a former amateur boxing champion, was a strong advocate of sports diplomacy. 

Through hosting events in South Africa, he wanted to erase the country's pariah reputation as well as invite foreign investment. 

He was instrumental in ringing the FIFA World Cup to South Africa. 

His passionate speech in the final bidding for the right to host the 2010 World Cup was believed to be of crucial importance. 

It was at the 2010 World Cup where Mandela made his last public appearance.

Nelson Mandela, left, 
dressed in a Springbok jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup ©Getty Images
Nelson Mandela, left, dressed in a Springbok jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup ©Getty Images

Although sport is mainly about competition, Mandela proved sport can also be about peace, reconciliation and bringing people together. 

He understood what sport meant to the South African people and used it in such a way that all communities felt they belonged to South Africa equally - he used sport to re-build the nation.

As he said: "Sport has the power to change the world. 

"It has the power to inspire. 

"It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. 

"It speaks to youth in a language they understand. 

"Sport can create hope where once there was only despair."

Those stirring words ring true even more so today in the light of recent events.

The Middle East, once a sporting desert, is literally becoming a Mecca for international sport.

Changes in culture and tradition are quite astonishing.

Witness the current FIFA World Cup in Qatar, as well as the mega events now staged in Saudi Arabia, ranging from mult-million dollar world title fights to Grand Prix motor racing.

Whatever we might think of 'sportswashing', there is little doubt that the various games people like to play have, by necessity, radically changed the way of life, particularly for women.

When I was last in Saudi Arabia less tan a decade ago, women were not allowed to drive on the the roads, let alone off a tee.

Now, not only can they play golf but they cane play or watch all forms of sport.

It was at the 2010 FIFA World Cup where Nelson Mandela made his last public appearance ©Getty Images
It was at the 2010 FIFA World Cup where Nelson Mandela made his last public appearance ©Getty Images

For this, we must thank the late International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, who threatened the Saudis with a red card from the Games if they don't abandon their negative attitude towards women's sport.

This began with the historic inclusion of two females at London 2012, and, thankfully has escalated to the point where, as insidethegames has reported, Saudi Arabia is to to bid to host the Asian Football Federation Women's Asian Cup in 2026.

Long condemned for archaic harsh restrictions on women, Saudi Arabia lifted a decades-old ban on female footballers only a few years ago, and it is now aiming to develop a national team strong enough to contest major tournaments.

The ultra-conservative Muslim nation has faced criticism of using sports events to gloss over its abysmal human rights record and the jailing of women activists.

Its latest step in the reform drive came when the Saudi Arabian Football Federation announced the formation of a women's soccer league in which 16 teams will take part with games in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam.

Saudi Arabia has so far set up three training centres for girls between the ages of 13 and 17 across the country, with plans to establish up to nine by 2025

Yet, the kingdom adheres to a rigid interpretation of Islam, and the involvement of women in sport is still frowned upon in some quarters.

But since the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017, some restrictions on women have been lifted as the country opens up to the world through sweeping reforms, thus, it hopes to gain at least a veneer of respectability.

Detractors may argue that it is not the power of sport, but the power of money that has been most influential in bringing about these much-needed reforms. Time will tell.

Even the notably inscrutable and immoveable Chinese Government seems to have bowed to the power of sport, rolling back draconian COVID-19 restrictions following nationwide demonstrations, some of which were inspired by youngsters watching scenes from the World Cup in Qatar on TV.

They were clearly envious of fans there and their freedom to mingle and party in the streets without wearing masks, and demanded similar freedom expression.

Actually, dissidence is nothing new in China.

Saudi Arabia has officially submitted a bid to stage the AFC Women's Asian Cup for the first time in 2026 ©Getty Images
Saudi Arabia has officially submitted a bid to stage the AFC Women's Asian Cup for the first time in 2026 ©Getty Images

I recall with some amusement, while working in the far East, being invited to a FIFA Congress in Guangzhou back in the early eighties, after which came a formal banquet. 

I found myself seated at a table of ten with a group of stern-faced Government officials plus a rotund jolly chap who spoke fractured English, merrily happily imbibing liberal amounts of plum brandy, several bottles of which had been placed on the table.

After each swig he invited us to join him in the traditional Chinese toast 'Yum Sing', which can be interpreted as 'Cheers' or 'Bottoms Up' though in Cantonese it actually means 'Drink to Victory'.

It turned out he was a fellow sports writer with a local newspaper. 

"Yum Sing," he said, raising his glass and nodding in my direction.

"Yum Sing," I replied, taking a sip of the delicious tipple.

He then looked at me intently. 

"Telll me," he asked. 

"What you think of chairman Mao?"

I hesitated for a moment, thinking I should be somewhat circumspect with my my answer.

Finally I replied: "Chairman Mao, a very interesting man."

"Hmm," came the response.

"Chairman Mao very interesting …very interesting. 

"Let me tell you about chairman Mao.

"Ten years ago he said 'Chinese boy, you no smoke?'" 

He fumbled through his pockets and pulled a packet of cigarettes.

He lit up and puffed away profusely.

"Yum Sing," he added pouring more plum brandy.

"Yum Sing," I repeated, raising my glass again.

My new buddy continued: "Ten years ago, chairman Mao say 'Chinese boy, no drink?'" 

There was nation-wide demonstrations to ease strict COVID-19 restrictions in China recently ©Getty Images
There was nation-wide demonstrations to ease strict COVID-19 restrictions in China recently ©Getty Images

More plum brandy was poured and quickly consumed.

"Yum Sing."

"Ten years ago chairman Mao say 'Chinese boy you no have sex till you marry'" 

He patted a passing waitress on the backside.

"Yum Sing."

"Ten years ago chairman Mao he say 'Chinese boy, you no marry till you twenty five?'"

"Yum Sing."

He refilled his glass, and raised it.

"Eight years ago...chairman Mao - he die. We now say, chairman Mao, go fuck yourself!"

"Yum Sing."

With that he rose, grabbed a bottle of plum brandy and staggered off into the night, immediately followed by two apparatchiks.

Never to be seen again, I imagine.