Kofi Annan, Muhammad Ali and the power of sport

As secretary general, Kofi Annan invited Muhammad Ali and Richard Lapchick to join him for a ceremony naming Ali a messenger of peace. Howard Bingham

Last Saturday, Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, died in a Swiss hospital at the age of 80. The world knew him as an accomplished statesman and diplomat, the first secretary general from Africa. I had the great good fortune to know him as a friend and a sportsman as well.

I met Kofi Annan when I first joined the UN staff in May 1978, shortly after I had been physically attacked because of my anti-apartheid activism, specifically the boycott of South Africa in sport. Kofi, then a senior staff member, had read about the attack and welcomed me with open arms.

On my very first day as a staff member of the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid, I went to have lunch in the staff cafeteria with a colleague. I was incredulous to see a branch of Chemical Bank near the cafeteria. In our efforts to end the oppression in South Africa, people around the world came together to try to strangle the regime. In addition to the sports boycott, there was an oil boycott, a trade boycott and a bank loan boycott. Chemical Bank was one of the major lenders to South Africa at that time.

I said to my colleague that we had to get Chemical Bank removed from the UN building, and that I would try to see Kurt Waldheim, then secretary general. That would never happen. I also hoped my bosses could make it go away. But they said it was too political.

So instead, I got together with a man from Ghana and a woman from New Zealand to try to develop a staff protest against the bank's presence. I was told that there had never been a staff protest at the United Nations. The staff, which was made up of idealistic people who came to try to create a better world, was often stifled by the structure of the bureaucracy.

Kofi Annan was the man from Ghana. He knew of my connections in sports and asked me, "Do you know Muhammad Ali? Can you get him to come to speak to the General Assembly about this?" I told him that I knew Ali casually at the time but I would try.

I met Ali in the mid-1960s, when I was in my late teens. I was a child of the 1960s, marching against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. I was with my dad, Joe Lapchick, at Kutsher's Hotel and Country Club in Monticello, N.Y., where he worked summers. Joe Lapchick knew the power of race and sport before most. He had helped integrate the NBA in 1950 when, as coach of the New York Knicks, he signed Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton. Ali sometimes trained at Kutsher's, and one day my dad introduced me and we shook hands. As Ali became more political and outspoken about the Vietnam War and racism, I remembered that handshake, proud to have met this growing global citizen.

When boxing promoters tried to get Ali to fight in Bophuthatswana, then a sham "independent homeland" for people of color in South Africa, my colleagues in the anti-apartheid movement and I met with his representatives and explained that there was no real independence and that South Africa was trying to use Ali. He never signed for that fight. So when Kofi Annan asked me to get Ali to speak at the UN, I contacted Ali's representatives and they made the arrangements.

Before Ali spoke to the General Assembly on April 4, 1978, Kofi and I greeted him. Kofi told Ali how much this meant in the fight against apartheid. The beautiful hall where the General Assembly met was rarely filled but on this day people were in every seat and many were standing, mesmerized by Ali. I had been asked to draft the message that Ali was to deliver. In typical Ali fashion, he started by repeating the first two sentences I had written and then went off on his magical way about what was important to him and why apartheid had to end. But he focused beyond South Africa. "What is a man? A man is his heart. A lying, cheating heart means a lying, cheating man. A merciful heart means a merciful man. A living heart means a living man. A dead heart means a dead man. Regardless of a man's title ... race ... wealth or position, if the heart is not great then he cannot be great. But if the heart is great that man remains great under all circumstances -- rich or poor, large or small, it is only the heart that makes one large or small."

I worked at the UN from 1978 to 1984 when I went to Northeastern University to found the Center for the Study of Sport in Society. My belief in using the power of sport to bring positive social change was reinforced both by the attack on me in 1978 and the hatred that my father received after he signed "Sweetwater" Clifton. Ali's message that day only reinforced my belief -- he had clearly moved so many powerful global leaders by speaking from his heart. Unfortunately, the branch of Chemical Bank never closed; the UN bureaucracy said they were locked into a multi-year contract. But Muhammad promised me that day that he would be an active fighter against apartheid. In fact, Ali became part of the sports boycott of South Africa, joining tennis legend Arthur Ashe as the two most prominent athletes fighting against apartheid.

Kofi was a big sports fan and had been a good athlete himself, a sprinter and soccer player at Macalester College in Minnesota. After seeing Ali's effect on the UN, Kofi told me that he would try to use the power of sport to change hearts and minds whenever he had the opportunity. In 1997 he became the first secretary general elected from the staff. He was clearly a change agent and a source of hope, as approachable as Kurt Waldheim was not. Early in his tenure, Kofi asked if I could bring Ali back to become his first messenger of peace. By that time Ali and his wife, Lonnie, were good friends with me and my wife, Ann.

Muhammad, his best friend and photographer, Howard Bingham, Lonnie, and I went to the UN for the ceremony. Kofi Annan talked about how Ali used the power of sport to inspire communities around the globe.

"People like Muhammad transcend national boundaries," Kofi said that day. "Some people transcend their environment and their profession. Some of the skills learned in athletics, the discipline, the art of competition, having compassion for those you defeat, working with groups and working as a team and being part of a team; knowing that you cannot achieve much without others. Recognizing that you need to rely on others, just as they rely on you; regardless of how brilliant you are. Playing with others without jealousy. There are certain qualities that great athletes pick up that eventually can stand them in good stead in life. These are lessons these athletes can pass on."

On the same day as the ceremony, Kofi's wife, Nane Annan, led a children's march of peace from Harlem to the UN Plaza. It was International Childrens Day. Ali went to the Plaza and was mobbed by the children he loved so deeply. I watched as the Annans looked on in awe.

In March of 1997, Secretary General Annan wrote to me, "I only hope I am as successful as you clearly have been in maintaining the spirit and enthusiasm that characterized our earlier efforts at the UN ... I am a great admirer of the work you and your father have done ... Your support and friendship will be a great source of encouragement to me in the years ahead."

Annan made sport and development a priority at the UN.

In 2001 Annan established the Sport for Development and Peace Office (SDP) as part of the United Nations and appointed Adolf Ogi, the former president of Switzerland, as his special adviser on SDP. For the first time, the growing movement of using the power of sport for development and peace had a central home at the UN. Programs from large urban areas in the United States and Europe to small rural villages in Africa, Latin America and Asia now had a place where they could learn together and from each other.

Before stepping down as secretary general in 2006, Kofi Annan declared 2005 as the International Year of Sport. The goals included: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education for boys and girls; promoting gender equality and empowering women; reducing child mortality and improving maternal health; combatting HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development.

In 2010, he addressed the Sport Accord Convention in Dubai and outlined some specifics of how sport had changed the world. Among the examples were how the sports boycott of South Africa helped end apartheid, how Arthur Ashe and Magic Johnson changed the perception of HIV/AIDS, how the integration of sports with diverse athletes and leaders helped change perceptions of people of color in Europe and the United States, and how the 2010 World Cup in South Africa showcased Africa to the world. After the 2016 Olympics, he praised the efforts of the Refugee Olympic Team in an era when xenophobia was on the rise.

The goals outlined in 2006 sounded like a blueprint for global development and peace. Because of Kofi Annan, the global community has engaged the world of sport in an attempt to achieve those goals. The power of sport is real and Kofi Annan embraced it.

I will miss you, my friend.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management graduate program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual racial and gender report card, and is the president of the National Consortium for Academics and Sports. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook. Mark Mueller, Todd Currie and Destini Orr contributed to this column.