Thought leadership: making Mandela's words real

It was of course Nelson Mandela who told us all something so simple, so eloquent and so powerful.

“Sport,” he said, “has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to inspire to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair …”

Last weekend, a car-and-knife rampage on London Bridge left eight people dead and dozens injured. Afterward, political, governmental and faith leaders issued calls for solidarity and resolve amid this latest act of terrorism in western Europe.

Who, though, from the world of sport stepped forward?

Who drew on the powerful words of Mr. Mandela: to be a thought leader, to rise to the moment, to take to Twitter — our global public space — in a bid to create hope from despair?

For one, the president of the international track and field federation, Sebastian Coe.

For another, the leader of the Paris 2024 bid committee, the canoe gold medalist, Tony Estanguet.

As well, the American gymnastics gold medalist Nastia Liukin.

Who else?

Other star athletes? The presidents of key international federations — the gymnastics, swimming, volleyball, figure skating or ski federations, just to pick a few?

The president of the International Olympic Committee?

Do you want to know why, among other reasons, the Olympic movement is having such a difficult time connecting in these first years of the 21st century with a global audience?

If you prefer — a global community?

The IOC says it stands — more than anything — for advancing the notion of peace in our broken world.

But does it, really?

The IOC makes much of its association with the United Nations. What did that produce in the aftermath of the London Bridge attacks?

The IOC, to be fair, unequivocally does considerable good work around Planet Earth. Last month, for instance, the president, Thomas Bach, visited IOC-supported centers in Africa that provide essential health care and school facilities.

By no means should such work be minimized.

Even so, when you are in charge of a movement, you have to recognize when it presents you with a change-making moment.

A movement delivers energy and passion. It stands for something. It connects people who are doing incredible things with other people who want to believe in something bigger than themselves.

It also finds ways to communicate and connect that purpose with that community, particularly in moments of great import.

Again, you wonder why the IOC is having trouble connecting?

To be clear:

There are many layers of tension inherent in any discussion of this sort.

There are those who will contend that jumping into the public arena to be a “thought leader” of this sort can often prove nothing more than an exercise in self-promotion.

Who point out that speaking out — in a variety of forms — can carry considerable risk, personal or professional. See, for example, the case of Colin Kaepernick, still unemployed as the NFL season approaches.

Who will argue that in this context sports and politics ought not to mix — as does, for instance, the U.S. Olympic Committee, via its mission and culture statements:

“To support U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes in achieving sustained competitive excellence while demonstrating the values of the Olympic movement, thereby inspiring all Americans.” It goes on: “The culture at the USOC is one of commitment and creativity with a competitive edge. Team members across the country work towards a common mission and are inspired by the stories of our American athletes.”

Those who ask, reasonably, how one measures a threshold for responding, and those who wonder if even asking that question begs basic standards of decency. For example, the death toll from the May 31 bombing that ripped through the diplomatic quarter in Kabul, Afghanistan, is now at least 150, officials said this week.

In the aftermath of the November 2015 attacks in Paris, including outside the Stade de France, the IOC issued a statement that said the Olympic flag would fly at half-mast and added, “We stand united with all people from all around the globe. Our thoughts are of course with all the families and friends of those who have been killed or wounded.”

Is there a difference between a “statement” that in 2015 goes out to old-school wire services but no attempt in 2017 to reach out via Twitter?

These can prove vexing matters, of strategic communications and more.

At the same time, as Mr. Mandela taught, it is also the case that sport can uniquely serve as a vessel for hope, dreams and inspiration.

But only when a leader recognizes that a particular moment is now — and when she or he stands up to make a difference.

The British prime minister, Theresa May, sought to seize just this moment. “Enough is enough,” she said after the rampage on London Bridge.

This, to be blunt, is what people want.

It’s especially what young people want.

They want to feel safe in a world that can feel so unsafe. And from their sports heroes — they want to know that they are there for them. And that sports really can be a way to make a difference — to offer a bridge, a platform, a voice.

Look at who, over the years, we talk about:

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, fists raised in Mexico City in 1968.

Of course, Muhammad Ali — one of the greatest boxers ever, but a man who had the courage of his convictions. This is why Ali is the greatest sports figure of the 20th century.

Even the IOC understands that — passing along last Saturday (apparently before the London Bridge attacks) a tweet memorializing Ali on the first anniversary of his death.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The man scored more than 38,000 points in the NBA. It is for his civil rights work that last year he was presented the United States’ highest civilian honor, the presidential medal of freedom.

LeBron James, one of the most accomplished athletes in American history and one increasingly willing to speak out on social and political matters, as he did last week after a racial slur was painted on the front gates of a Los Angeles-area home that he owns:

‘No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is — it’s tough,” James said. “And we got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African-Americans until we feel equal in America.”

We all have a long way to go. We get there together when people who matter speak up, and especially in a language that young people understand.

Like this, last Sunday morning, from the president of the European track and field federation:

When, like this, it speaks from and to the heart, that's more than enough.