Legends are still playing the game

The middle-aged woman waiting patiently on the sidelines at the Atrec playing fields in Alexandra on Tuesday summed up the effect the influx of sports heroes had on South Africa this week.

She wasn’t part of any of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation projects that had gathered for a brief interaction with some of the greats of various games; she’d driven up from Durban with the sole purpose of meeting and having her picture taken with Martina Navratilova.

The tennis legend, who finally retired this year at the age of 50, graciously obliged and the fan returned to the coast clutching her camera and a wonderful memory.

The children from the Laureus programmes were less star-struck. After a brief exercise, led by the legends, to develop coordination the youngest participants returned to their jumping castle.

The list of organisation members who were in South Africa for the Laureus Academy Forum read like a who’s who of sport. Tennis was well represented by Navratilova, Monica Seles and the irrepressible Ille Nastase; cricket by Kapil Dev; football by Sir Bobby Charlton and the newly inducted “friend and ambassador”, Lucas Radebe; athletics by decathlete Daley Thompson, Kenyan long-distance legend Kip Keino and Nawal el Moutawakel; the first Arab woman to win an Olympic gold medal; while Franz Klammer, though lesser-known in South Africa, is probably the greatest downhill skiier of all time.

What unites this disparate band of famous sportspeople, explained the organisation’s international chairperson, hurdler Edwin Moses, was the desire to give something back to sport after they retired.

Multiple Olympic gold medal winner Moses, who went more than 100 races unbeaten, epitomises the credo.

He spends at least an hour a day when at home in the United States dealing with Laureus issues and many other weeks of the year travelling the globe spreading the message of how children’s lives can be improved by participating in sport.

South Africa, with seven existing projects and two others announced this week, has more Laureus programmes than any other single country in the world.
That’s not surprising, with former president Nelson Mandela being the patron and the Rupert millions behind one of the two founding sponsors, Richemont, through subsidiary IWC (the other founding sponsor is DaimlerChrysler).

The foundation uses its 42 star members to attract corporate backing for projects. All the sports people are volunteers, said Laureus local chairperson and former Springbok captain Morné du Plessis, and some, like El Moutawakel, had spent two days travelling to ensure they made the South African event.

Such dedication without financial reward is rare in the money-driven world of professional sport, but the commitment of the academy members was evident.

And, although they have retired, it was also evident that the will to win, so crucial in reaching the pinnacle of sport, has not withered. Navratilova, for example, showed as much determination in completing the egg-and-spoon race as she did in winning nine Wimbledon singles titles.

Although Moses, Thompson and Charlton are frequent visitors to our shores on Laureus or other business, it was a first visit for the Czech-born American. She took a principled stand against playing here under apartheid, but the reason she hasn’t come since majority rule is simple: “No one invited me.”

For Seles, it was not only her first visit to South Africa but her first trip as a Laureus academy member. The former world number one, whose career was blighted when she was stabbed by a deranged Steffi Graf fan, was delighted by the enthusiasm shown by the children in Alex and hopeful that this would not be her last visit here.

Her wish might come true. Moses intimated that, with the talent at Laureus’s disposal, a tennis project in South Africa could soon be started.

The Durban fan need not feel embarrassed: after the interviews were done and photographs taken, most members of the media threw professional detachment aside and had their pictures taken with their heroes.

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