A Silent Tribute: Relive Greg Minnaar’s World Championship Homage To Nelson Mandela
In the quiet tribal lands of Qunu, South Africa, 21 shots rang out yesterday honoring a fallen hero, a leader, an inspiration. Although his legend will live on forever and tears will be shed long after his funeral; family, friends, dignitaries and ordinary citizens alike, gathered yesterday and said their final goodbyes. After a lifetime of ups and downs, struggles and conquests, pain and happiness; former South African President, Nelson Mandela was laid to rest in the town where he grew up, after losing his battle with recent illness.
Dignitaries from around the world flocked to South Africa upon the passing of Mr. Mandela and immediately ordered the flags of their respective countries to be flown at half mass during South Africa’s time of mourning: a further sign of The President’s global impact. While his story resonates with millions around the world and he is most widely recognized for his political impression, Mr. Mandela’s influence spreads beyond his anti-apartheid efforts. One of the most glaring examples of that is his impact on sport in his home nation. His most famous sporting moment came during an appearance at the Rugby World Cup Final in Johannesburg in 1995 where he stood atop the podium with Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, wearing Pienaar’s jersey as a sign of respect and pride in his nation of South Africa. Behind the scenes however, Mr. Mandela fought for the equality of his nation’s athletes, allowing many to compete in the sports they love amongst the world’s best competition.
One such recipient of that chance to compete is Pietermaritzburg native, Greg Minnaar. As homages ring in from around the world, honoring the life of the former president, a tribute took place a few months prior to his death that widely fell under the radar of the world’s audience. Minnaar set out to defend his UCI Downhill Mountain Bike World Championship in his hometown last August in front of his home crowd, with all eyes of the nation on him. Minnaar stated that he had no choice but to win, given the circumstances and the pressure on him as the defending champion and hometown favorite. In true Minnaar fashion, like so many South African athletes before him, he channeled the power Madiba Magic and did not disappoint, mounting an unprecedented final run, finishing with a flat tire, all while still maintaining the quickest time. The scene was unreal. Hollywood couldn’t have written a better script.
And while the gold medal around his neck was the bell of the ball at Cascades Mountain Bike Park at the end of the day, it was Minnaar’s helmet that was the true award winner. Sporting a portrait of the man who was his inspiration, Minnaar rode to victory with the words and actions of Mr. Mandela ringing through his head. Although to a much lesser degree, Minnaar had followed in his Tata Madiba’s footsteps, inspiring a nation, all while honoring the ailing president on his helmet. While many of the world’s eyes did not get to witness this remarkable event in mountain bike and sporting history, for those fortunate few who were there or saw it on television, it will be a moment that will live on forever, just like the legacy Mr. Nelson Mandela leaves behind.
We take a moment to reflect on this honorable tribute and remember Mr. Mandela in the words of the World Champion, Greg Minnaar himself:
Oakley: Can you describe, in your own words, what Nelson Mandela meant to the country of South Africa?
Greg Minnaar: Madiba is freedom and unity
Oakley: Simply put…we like it. And how about The President’s impact on your own life?
Greg Minnaar: Mr. Mandela had a massive impact on my life. If it wasn’t for this leader, I would never have had the opportunity to become a professional athlete or World Champion. There were sanctions against South Africa that stood in the way of athletes competing in international events, including the Olympics. I’m very fortunate I wasn’t one of those athletes that was the best in South Africa but couldn’t compete against the best in the world.
Oakley: Are there any specific moments or events in history that stand out to you in terms of Mr. Mandela’s personal story or struggle?
Greg Minnaar: His life in general stands out to me; what he stood for, the measures he went to in fighting for what he believed in, and then to have zero resentment towards the people that imprisoned him for 27 years. That is a very special man.
Oakley: What was the inspiration behind the portrait of Madiba on your helmet during Mountain Bike World Championships in your hometown this year?
Greg Minnaar: World Championships is the one race you race under your National Federation’s colours, representing your country. When designing my helmet I wanted it to be a tribute to South Africa, as well as honoring Madiba. There are three aspects to my helmet: Mandela, his quote on freedom and the colours of his political party.
Oakley: Relive that feeling for us, crossing the line with the quickest time, in your own back yard, in front of your home fans, having the time stand and then being celebrated as the defending world champion.
Greg Minnaar: My initial feeling was relief. It felt airy and emotionless. I felt so much pressure from my fans and myself that my only option was to win. But when I stood on the podium, looking up as they raised the South African flag and in the background was the forest I raced my very first mountain bike race, and in front of me was my family and friends; that’s when the realization of what I had just done, became a reality. I wouldn’t know how to fully describe that feeling.
Oakley: Finally, what did it mean to you, to have done all of the above, with the tribute to Madiba on your helmet?
Greg Minnaar: It just makes that win, all the more special.