By Mark Gleeson
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - While the world mourns his death, Nelson Mandela will also be celebrated as the man at the heart of South Africa's return to world competition after decades of Apartheid-enforced isolation, using sport as a means of reconciliation between the country's diverse racial groups.
Mandela, who died aged 95 on Thursday, trumpeted an early return to international participation, encouraged South African sporting personalities and significantly saved the Springbok emblem, putting a firm lid on a contentious debate
His presence at key contests at which South African teams triumphed led to the concept of 'Madiba magic', a play on his clan name and the awe-inspiring effect he produced.
Sport had been targeted for sanctions during the country's Apartheid rule, leading to bans from the Olympic Games and various World Cups and an almost complete isolation by the time Mandela was released from his long jail sentence in 1990.
His African Nations Congress moved quickly to use sport to implement a nation-building policy with South Africa allowed to send a team to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and enter the 1994 soccer World Cup qualifiers, long before the change in the political system was complete.
It was also a two-way street with major international sporting bodies keen to re-incorporate South Africa back into their families.
"The International Olympic Committee wanted Mandela in their ranks, he was an icon of the world and at the opening of the Barcelona Games they treated him like a head of state," recalled Sam Ramsamy, former South African Olympic Committee president and now an IOC member.
Mandela also stepped forcefully into a bitter debate over the symbols for South African teams, surprisingly siding with his former white oppressors and allowing rugby to keep using the Springbok emblem.
Most wanted it removed as a hate symbol of the days when only whites were allowed to represent South African sport but while the national flower, the Protea, was adopted by cricket and then the country's Olympic committee, rugby continues with the Springbok as its image.
It won for Mandela deep affection across racial lines, particularly among the Afrikaner community, at the time suspicious of what a black-led future held.
"Through his extraordinarily vision, he was able to use the 1995 Rugby World Cup as an instrument to help promote nation building just one year after South Africa's historic first democratic election," South African Rugby Union president Oregan Hoskins said on Friday.
Mandela famously wore the jersey of captain Francois Pienaar on the day the Springboks beat New Zealand to win the World Cup and a year later, was clad in the country's soccer jersey as the national side, Bafana Bafana, won the African Nations Cup.
While he was at the forefront of the country's bidding efforts that ultimately won the right to host the 2010 World Cup, Mandela also maintained a keen interest in South Africa's top sportsmen.
He once had golfer Ernie Els and his great rival Tiger Woods round for tea.
"He treated us like we were his two sons," recalled Els. "His sincerity was amazing and it really left a mark on both of us."
Cricket captain Shaun Pollock lost his job after his team bombed out of the 2003 World Cup, misreading the rules on rain-effected matches, but he received a call some days later from Mandela.
"He just called to commend me on the way I handle the situation and to see if I was alright," Pollock said.
(Editing by John O'Brien)