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Sports-mad South Africa salutes 'The Captain'

JOHANNESBURG -- Sports-mad South Africa saluted Nelson Mandela on Saturday with smiles and moments of silence in honor of the late anti-apartheid leader, who inspired people to pursue the impossible from politics to the playing field.

The tributes stretched across the sporting spectrum, from club cricket and fun runs to top fixtures such as a League Cup final between Platinum Stars and Orlando Pirates, the Soweto giants believed to have been Mandela's favorite soccer side.

Saturday's Cup final will be preceded by a ceremony in honor of South Africa's first black president, whose early sporting prowess, particularly boxing and soccer, was cut short when he was jailed for 27 years by the apartheid government.

A cricket one-day international against India in Durban will go ahead as planned on Sunday after talks with the government over whether to postpone it as a mark of respect. It too will include tributes to Mandela — known affectionately by his clan name “Madiba” — reflecting his belief in the power of sport to unite divided peoples.

On Saturday, many recalled Mandela's central role in arguably South Africa's greatest sporting triumph — winning the 1995 rugby World Cup just one year after the multi-racial elections that ended decades of white-minority rule.

“I always love to refer to Madiba as the unofficial captain of all our sports teams,” said Joel Stransky, the fly-half who kicked the last-gasp drop-goal to clinch the final, unleashing a wave of ecstasy on a still-divided nation.

Mandela then followed up with a political masterstroke, bridging the gulf between white and black by appearing in a dark green Springbok jersey, a sporting strip enmeshed in the then-entrenched culture of white supremacy.

On his back was a number '6', the same as that of Springbok captain Francois Pienaar.

“I think he realised that as a divided nation we needed something that could unite us,” Stransky told Talk Radio 702. “No-one will ever forget when he walked on to the rugby field with the captain's jersey when we won the World Cup.”

Thousands in Saturday running clubs across the country held minutes of silence for the 95-year-old, and in Johannesburg changed their routes to take in his upscale home, now a flower-festooned site of international pilgrimage.

“He's like the father of all our sports,” said Bruce Fordyce, South Africa's greatest ultra-marathon runner who met Mandela on several occasions. “Every sportsman he ever met, he reminded you that he was a boxer,” he told Reuters.

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Drum majorettes dance outside the Mandela House in Soweto on Saturday, Dec. 7 as part of the events celebrating the life of former South African President Nelson Mandela, two days after his death. (AFP)

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