Sport, Nelson Mandela's vehicle for change

Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela chats with David Beckham at the Nelson Mandela Foundation office in Johannesburg, in this file picture taken May 21, 2003. Mandela has passed away on December 5, 2013 at the age of 95. REUTERS

When it came to sport, Nelson Mandela had the ability to inspire even inspirational figures and leave global stars completely star-struck. Mandela's death on Thursday at the age of 95 prompted a vast outpouring of tributes from the world's best-known athletes and top sporting bodies. Muhammad Ali said Mandela inspired others to "reach for what appeared to be impossible."

"What I will remember most about Mr. Mandela is that he was a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge," Ali said in a statement through his foundation.

Pele wrote, "He was my hero, my friend." Tiger Woods called his meeting with Mandela in 1998 "inspiring times." "It's sad for everyone who got a chance to not only meet him, but I've been influenced by him," Woods said.

Usain Bolt tweeted: "One of the greatest human beings ever." The NBA's LeBron James said: "In his 95 years, he was able to do unbelievable things not only for South Africa but for the whole world." Mandela loved sport and appreciated its enormous potential to do good. Nowhere more than in his own country, where he famously used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to knock down the last barriers of apartheid.

"A remarkable man who understood that sport could build bridges, break down walls, and reveal our common humanity,'' International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said. The IOC would fly the Olympic flag at half-staff for three days for Mandela. Bach later choked up while speaking about when he met Mandela in 1996 and asked the former political prisoner if he felt hatred toward the apartheid regime that imprisoned him for 27 years. "His immediate response was 'no' but he saw the doubt in my eyes," Bach said. "You don't believe me?" he asked. "I can tell you why. If I hate I would not be a free man anymore." Bach wasn't the only one to show his emotions. Gary Player paused while speaking at a golf tournament in South Africa to compose himself and wipe away tears. "When you think of a man going to jail for all those years for doing the right thing, not the wrong thing, it's hard to comprehend that a man can come out and be like that," Player said.

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