By Greg Nott
This past week has been filled with extraordinary and historical sporting moments that are so inspirational they’re almost too good to be true. They hold a key for our political future; if we’ll appreciate the significance of the events.
When I first met Caster Semenya, it was August 2009. She had just won the 800m final at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin and was subsequently embroiled in a humiliating debate which played out in the international media about whether she was, in fact, a woman. What struck me about this young athlete, who I was representing, was her ability to show grace and fortitude. Caster is a wonderful human being — spirited, competitive and brave, and I’m so pleased that she’s been cleared to compete where she belongs — in the international sports arena.
On Friday night, I was especially proud to watch her carry South Africa’s flag at the Olympic Opening Ceremony. It has required immense focus and determination on her part to rise above the hurtful remarks and compete on a very public and cut-throat platform.
Semenya was selected as the flag bearer ahead of another athlete, who my firm represented, “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius, who is making history in London as the first amputee to compete on the track at the able-bodied games. Oscar too has had to endure international scrutiny about his ability to compete based on the way he was born; certainly not easy for someone who’s fought a life-long battle of shaking off the “disabled” label.
Another South African sportsman, swimmer Cameron van der Burgh, also broke new ground for the country on Sunday when he became the first South African man to ever win an individual Olympic gold medal for a swimming event. He conquered the world’s best in the men’s 100m breaststroke in a 58.46 second world record, ending a medal drought in our swimming.
These three inspirational athletes can teach us as a nation about not only surviving, but overcoming our fears, past humiliations and detractors to create inspiration for ourselves and the world.
And if these weren’t inspiration enough, we had more. On another day of unprecedented victory in South African sport July 22, golfing legend Ernie Els and cricketer Hashim Amla drew inspiration from one another and recognised the roles they each played in the others’ victory.
Amla scored a historic 311 in what would be our nation’s first ever Test win over England at the Oval. It was the first Test triple century by a South African as well as the highest Test score by a South African.
A few hours later, Els claimed his second victory at Royal Lytham, in what was a surprise comeback from the South African golfing great. Amla said of Els’ victory, “As South Africans we are chuffed, someone who’s been an ambassador for the country has again made the country proud.”
Both Els and Amla have faced their own unique challenges — Els with an autistic son and Amla as a cricketer of colour in a sport that is still battling to transform.
Els kept his autistic son Ben in mind while he was playing. “I made a lot of putts with Ben in mind because I know he was watching on TV. He loves it when I hit golf balls. He loves the flight of the ball and the sound. I wanted to keep him excited today, so I made a lot of putts.”
Els also drew inspiration from the first South African man to truly understand the power of sport to transform a nation — former South African president Nelson Mandela. “I was watching the cricket on TV before and just kind of day-dreaming and the thought came to me in a split second: ‘If I win, I’d better thank president Mandela’,” said Els. “I grew up in the apartheid era and then changing into the democratic era and he was right there at the change … I was the first South African to win a major (the 1994 US Open), he got on the phone when I was in Pittsburgh, Oakmont … it was inspiring.”
The past week’s events aren’t insignificant moments by insignificant people with insignificant stories. Our sportsmen and women displayed a greatness that reflects on all of us, but we need to seize the inspiration and appreciate the magnitude of what has been achieved.
With the current state of our nation and politics, many South Africans are anxious about the country’s future, and concerned about the lack of leadership in our political arena. But the past week’s events are our chance to be re-invigorated and enthused for the tough road ahead. With the ANC’s Mangaung conference around the corner, we should respond to these moments and move towards a turning point in politics. It’s not impossible — our sportsmen and women have overcome massive difficulties and our politicians can too.
Greg Nott is a director at Werksmans Attorneys. In 2010 he was chosen as the International Lawyer of the Year by UK Magazine Legal Business and he is consistently ranked in Legal 500. He has represented South African athletes Caster Semenya and Oscar Pistorius and currently represents this year’s Comrades winner. He has served as vice president of the National Legal Organisation, together with the past minister of justice, Dullah Omar and the first black Judge President of South Africa, Pius Langa. As a young attorney in Johannesburg, Nott cut his teeth on getting political detainees out of jail during the height of apartheid. He is passionate about sports and nation building and how the two influence and affect one another.