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Sporting tributes for Nelson Mandela

Friday - 12/6/2013, 6:16am  ET

FILE - In this May 15, 2004 file photo, former South African President Nelson Mandela lifts the World Cup trophy in Zurich, Switzerland, after FIFA's executive committee announced that South Africa would host the 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament. Mandela was pivotal in helping the country win the right to host the tournament. South Africa's President Jacob Zuma said, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, that Mandela has died. He was 95. (AP Photo/Michael Probst, File)

BY GERALD IMRAY
AP Sports Writer

When it came to sports, Nelson Mandela had the ability to inspire inspirational figures and leave global stars star-struck.

The former South African president, Nobel Peace Prize winner and anti-apartheid leader died Thursday at the age of 95, leading to a vast outpouring of tributes from the world's best-known athletes and top sporting bodies.

"It's sad for everyone who got a chance to not only meet him, but I've been influenced by him," golfer Tiger Woods said. "I got a chance to meet him with my father back in '98. He invited us to his home, and it was one of the inspiring times I've ever had in my life."

Boxing great Muhammad Ali said Mandela inspired others to "reach for what appeared to be impossible."

"What I will remember most about Mr. Mandela is that he was a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge," Ali said in a statement through his foundation.

NBA star LeBron James said: "In his 95 years, he was able to do unbelievable things not only for South Africa but for the whole world. What he meant to this world while he was able to be here is everything."

Sprinter Usain Bolt posted on Twitter: "One of the greatest human beings ever ... The world's greatest fighter," while Brazilian World Cup winner Pele wrote "He was my hero, my friend."

As much as sportsmen and women loved Mandela, he in turn loved sport and appreciated its enormous potential to do good. Nowhere more than in his own country, where he famously used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to knock down the last barriers of apartheid.

"A remarkable man who understood that sport could build bridges, break down walls, and reveal our common humanity," International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said in a statement to The Associated Press.

The IOC will fly the Olympic flag at half-staff for three days for Mandela, he said.

Bach later choked up while speaking about when he met Mandela in 1996 and asked the former political prisoner if he felt hatred toward the apartheid regime that imprisoned him for 27 years.

"His immediate response was 'no' but he saw the doubt in my eyes," Bach said Friday. "'You don't believe me?' he asked. 'I can tell you why. If I hate I would not be a free man anymore.'"

Bach wasn't the only one to show his emotions. Gary Player paused while speaking at a golf tournament in South Africa to compose himself and wipe away tears.

"When you think of a man going to jail for all those years for doing the right thing, not the wrong thing, it's hard to comprehend that a man can come out and be like that," Player said. "He was an exceptional man, just exceptional."

FIFA President Sepp Blatter said he and world soccer were in mourning at Mandela's passing and ordered that the 209 flags of the world body's member countries at FIFA headquarters in Switzerland be flown at half-staff.

"It is in deep mourning that I pay my respects to an extraordinary person, probably one of the greatest humanists of our time and a dear friend of mine: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela," Blatter said.

From a cricket test in Australia to basketball games in the United States, Mandela was remembered by players and fans across sport with moments of silence in the hours after his death was announced.

A keen amateur boxer and runner in his youth, Mandela understood the intricacies of rugby, soccer and cricket, the most popular sports in his country, but even games and players the South African wouldn't have been familiar with were touched by him.

"Nelson Mandela was one of the most powerful and inspirational leaders in the world and a great friend of the NBA," NBA Commissioner David Stern said, "... and while we mourn his passing, we know that his legacy and quest for equality will endure."

Sport was never far from Mandela's mind. He was there when South Africa returned to the Olympic family, won rugby's World Cup, won soccer's African Cup and earned the right to host FIFA's World Cup in 2010, the first in Africa. It was fitting that Mandela's last appearance for an adoring public was when he greeted fans in a packed stadium on the outskirts of Soweto ahead of the 2010 World Cup final.

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