South African Rugby Player Honored

Robert Siegel speaks with Joel Stransky, who is in Washington, D.C., to receive an award from In Search for Common Ground. He's representing South Africa's 1995 Springboks rugby team, and the award is for inspiring unity and healing through the power of sports. Stransky kicked the winning goal of the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The moment was featured in the film Invictus. He talks about how the team was able to bridge the divide between blacks and whites in post-apartheid South Africa.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

People who know nothing else about rugby may know something about the 1995 Rugby World Cup. It was the subject of the movie "Invictus." It was played in South Africa, the first major sporting event there after the end of apartheid.

Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president, embraced his country's national team, known as the Springboks, even though rugby was the game of South Africa's white minority. Blacks prefer soccer.

The Springboks had been barred from international rugby under anti-apartheid sanctions. And now they were playing New Zealand in the final game for the World Cup in their own country. The score was tied. They were in overtime. And a South African player drop-kicked a goal to win it.

(Soundbite of a kick and cheering)

SIEGEL: And the player who scored that goal is in Washington today to receive an award from the Search for Common Ground. He's Joel Stransky. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOEL STRANSKY (Award Winner, Search for Common Ground): Thanks very much, Robert. Nice to be here.

SIEGEL: And for people who remember the movie, we should say you were played by Scott Eastwood, the son of Clint Eastwood. You're not the Matt Damon character.

Mr. STRANSKY: No, that would have been Francois Pienaar, the captain and the forward.

SIEGEL: How important to South Africa was that World Cup in 1995?

Mr. STRANSKY: Well, I think it was a special time for us in our country. In some ways, a time of uncertainty. You know, we were a very young democracy and a new president, our first black president. And we were a nation still divided, really. And I think that World Cup came at a time for us where it just helped in some little way unite a country around a sports team.

SIEGEL: The Common Ground Awards recognize accomplishments in conflict resolution, negotiation, community and peace building - not sports. During that World Cup, did you feel that you had the burden of those very weighty achievements on your back? Or were you playing rugby?

Mr. STRANSKY: We were playing rugby. We were just a bunch of young sportsmen wanting to get out on the field and do the best we could. But we had a common goal and we had a little slogan that we try to live by, and that was: one team one country. And I think as that World Cup progressed, we could see the demographic breakdown of the supporters changing around us, and obviously a country uniting around this team.

SIEGEL: You could see that it was no longer just whites there cheering you on in the stands.

Mr. STRANSKY: We could, absolutely. And I think it was partially the fact that we were doing quite well and we were winning. But I think most importantly, it was Nelson Mandela's support of the team that ensured that everyone supported the team.

SIEGEL: I've read that it was a turning point for you to make the trip that many visitors to South Africa, like I did, to Robben Island to see the prison and even the cell where Nelson Mandela had spent so many years.

Mr. STRANSKY: Well, I think, you know, you've been there and you've seen that cell. It is the smallest tiniest little room that you can imagine with nothing in it. It was a bucket and a steel bed. And to imagine a man sacrificing so many years of his life for what he believed, you can only love and adore the man.

SIEGEL: In the racial and ethnic mix of South Africa, you are a member of a minority within a minority. You're South African Jew.

Mr. STRANSKY: Yeah.

SIEGEL: And I gather people think of you as a South African Jewish player. That figures in your identity.

Mr. STRANSKY: Yeah, they do. And there are some wonderful legacies in South Africa about the Springbok team needing a Jew to do well is - also helps my legendary status.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Oh, is that your - it's considered good luck for the team?

Mr. STRANSKY: It is considered good luck, yeah.

SIEGEL: Do you see any opportunities today in the world for people in sports to do things that might indeed ease larger tensions and contribute to peace and community?

Mr. STRANSKY: Absolutely. I think sports is a fantastic conduit. And if I think about in our country how many different organizations use sport to unite children at a level, to use it as upliftment(ph) and try to, you know, get the gangsters out of the gangster territories. Use sports to get them back into schools and into a better lifestyle. So I think sport is a wonderful conduit.

SIEGEL: Joel Stransky, congratulations on the award that you're receiving, and nice to talk with you.

Mr. STRANSKY: Thank you for having me. Nice to be here.

SIEGEL: Joel Stransky kicked the winning goal for South Africa in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The team and that competition were featured in the movie "Invictus." Stransky is in Washington to accept an award on behalf of that year's entire team from the Search for Common Ground. The award is for inspiring unity and healing through the power of sports.

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