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Hollywood’s big on symbolism; often using symbolism instead of accuracy. “Invictus”, the new Clint Eastwood film takes full advantage of symbolism…and stretches accuracy. The title, “Invictus” is drawn from the eponymous nineteenth century poem by William Henley. That’s a poem that Nelson Mandela had with him whilst in captivity on Robben Island. True and accurate. In the film Nelson Mandela, the truly undefeated man in the arena, gives the poem to the Springboks rugby captain, Francois Pienaar, before his World Cup Final match with New Zealand in 1995. Great symbolism. Not so accurate, however.

Undefeated man in the arena

The Undefeated Man In The Arena

In reality President Mandela gave the Springboks team some equally inspiring words. A 1910 speech by Theodore Roosevelt, “the Man in the Arena.” In essence, President Mandela chose a speech with far more relevance for the team about to face the All Blacks in the Ellis Park Stadium. A great choice of words. And an especially great choice of words for the team, the occasion and the venue.

The Man In The Arena Speech

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

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About the Author

The Principal Trainer at training business Time to Market. Based in Oxford, I run presentation and public speaking training courses, coaching sessions and seminars throughout the UK.

  • Hi Brian,
    Anthony Sampson’s book, “Mandela”, published in 1999 makes several references to the William Henley poem, “Invictus” and the line, “I am the master of my fate.” He notes how he had the poem on Robben Island, how he recited it to cheer up a friend and how he used it in a major speech after his release.
    He doesn’t refer to him giving a copy to Francois Pienaar.
    But then his reference to the Springboks captain is also very brief and doesn’t suggest any degree of contrivance around the Rugby World Cup in 1995.
    I sense that the one reliable source for the Teddy Roosevelt speech extract, “The man in the arena,” being given to the Springboks captain is Francois Pienaar himself…perhaps a copy of his autobiography, “Rainbow Warrior” might be a source?

  • Hi
    I have seen this statement made on a couple of occasions and have read through Peter Carlin’s book (now published as Invictus) without finding mention of the gift at all, only the use of Invictus at the beginning of the book.
    Having read the poem and the relevant part of the Man in the Arena I have no doubt about what was given to Pienaar by Nelson Mandela, and it wasn’t Invictus. I was wondering however what the source of this information is though as it is of interest to me and of relevance to a book that I am currently authoring. Any detail about where Invictus is referenced would also be of great assistance. Many thanks, Brian

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