Trapped inside the hard, forbidding walls of his jail cell, with barely space to move, did Nelson Mandela the prisoner ever dream that things would turn out quite this well? Surely, even the world's most inspirational and famous optimist must be thrilled and perhaps a little surprised _ who isn't? _ that South Africa is proving to be such a shining ambassador for itself.
Talk about a country having a banner sporting year. First, hosting a football World Cup that radiated warmth and joy. Then, giving golf a new champion with an alphabet-soup name who came out of nowhere to win the British Open.
How deliciously intriguing that a player nurtured under the African sun proved best able to handle Scotland's howling gales.
Do, however, spare a thought for the engraver who had to carve "Louis Oosthuizen" onto the base of that celebrated silver trophy. Takes up more space than Tiger Woods. And yet, in four short days that transformed him from who? to the
name on everyone's lips, Oosthuizen ensured that the entire golfing world now knows that his tongue-tripping jumble of vowels and consonants is pronounced WUHST-hy-zen.
Can there be better karma than a South African lifting the claret jug on the day Mandela turned 92?
Clearly, Oosthuizen thought not.
"Felt a little bit special, really. When I walked down 18, I was thinking about his birthday," he said.
The 27-year-old was just a young boy when the anti-apartheid leader was freed in 1990, after spending 27 years in prison.
"What he's done for our country is unbelievable, and happy birthday to him," Oosthuizen said.
The power of sport to put a nation on the map and to unite and inspire its people is not new. Mandela saw it. In fact, he practically willed South Africa's Springbok rugby team to victory at the 1995 World Cup that his nation hosted. Mandela's utter delight when South Africa lifted the trophy _ he shook his arms in the air with the enthusiasm of a young boy _ was infectious, an uplifting moment for a country mired in post-apartheid fears, uncertainty and hardships.
South Africa then topped that this year with what many visitors will remember as a football World Cup that was exciting, exotic and a huge success, even if it _ grrrrr _ also introduced the world to those infuriating vuvuzela horns. Perhaps infected is a better word _ they're now being heard at the Tour de France.
Of course, South Africans were crushed that their team, the Bafana Bafana, was knocked out after three matches, the worst ever showing by a host nation. But that didn't really seem to matter compared to the PR triumph the nation reaped from being so welcoming and capable.
Since Spain beat the Netherlands in the July 11 final, we've not heard a squeak from the doomsayers who had predicted that holding the tournament in South Africa would be a disaster; that stadiums wouldn't be finished, that lax security would allow terrorists to waltz in, that tourists would be robbed, raped and murdered by the busload. There were a few logistical glitches but nothing to really spoil the mood. World football had its first, and long overdue, African party _ proving that it can be done.
And now, just to make sure that everyone gets the great-place-to-be message, here comes Oosthuizen, gushing about how South Africa is a fabulous home for a golfer. During the apartheid years, the sound of Afrikaans-accented English was like a stain on a person, marking them as coming from what then seemed to be a despicable country because it treated blacks as inferior humans and had Mandela locked away on Robben Island. Now, spoken by the likes of Oosthuizen, that same sound seems liltingly pleasant to the ear. It no longer carries shame.
"The weather in South Africa is brilliant," he said. "Wintertime you can still play some days in shorts there."
Quick, when's the next plane?
No one, of course, is naive enough to think that sport can gloss over South Africa's frighteningly large array of complex and difficult problems. It is a promised land of much misery. No number of new World Cup stadiums, for instance, can hide such a shockingly large gulf between rich and poor.
Nevertheless, the last few weeks have been remarkable _ so much so that 2010 could perhaps mark a watershed in world perceptions of South Africa and its people. The rainbow nation. That colorful and positive name that South Africans give themselves makes so much sense now.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org