Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela will arrive in the nation's capital Sunday after the most tumultuous New York City welcome ever accorded a foreign private citizen. Though little reported, he was a soccer player and amateur boxer of some note in his youth. Like all African males brought up in the customs of their tribes, this future African National Congress leader sought status among his Tembu people in the Transkei through sports.

This potential Nobel Peace Prize recipient gained a certain degree of skill in stick-fighting during his days as a shepherd. At 6 feet 3 and powerfully built, he was -- and is today -- an imposing presence. He attended Methodist schools, and tried amateur boxing as a student at Fort Hare College (where he was suspended in his third year for leading a protest because of powers stripped from student government committeemen). He eventually graduated from the University of South Africa with a bachelor of arts degree.

Perhaps it was the discipline boxing required that enabled him to command immediate attention when he joined the African National Congress Youth League in 1944 at 26. That and the traditional rites of passage lessons learned in his village's "circumcision school," which he attended at 16: to willingly suffer blows, cold, thirst, distasteful food, punishment, and sometimes death. Boys in particular were steeled to endure, to obey, and to embody manliness. In his writings, he speaks of youth as the "power-station" of African nationalism.

In nearly every account of personal knowledge of "Madiba" (pronounced ma-DEE-ba) -- as Mandela is affectionately known by his fellow prisoners and ANC members -- there is mention of his friendliness, his commanding physical presence, his personal courage, his fearlessness, his debating skills, his intellect.

In 1975 while imprisoned at infamous Robben Island, he and 29 other inmates constructed a volleyball court in the exercise yard. They fashioned a tennis court from this space but many of them were too weak or ill to play. The physically able also wanted to play soccer but were not allowed because it would entail mixing with the general prison population. They had to settle for British and South African magazines that had all mention of boycotts and racially mixed games cut out.

South Africa's sports craze began in earnest with rugby, the national sport of its white citizens. British troops introduced it in Capetown in 1875 and it now has near religious status in Afrikaaner (that two-thirds portion of white South Africa that is Boer or Dutch in origin) tradition. The Springboks -- as their national rugby teams are called -- enjoyed a daunting reputation when squared off against the British Lions, the New Zealand All-Blacks (so named because of their uniforms, not their race), the Welsh, the French and the Australians. But their publicly espoused policy of apartheid (an African word meaning "separate") finally occasioned enough consternation to get them evicted from the Olympic Games in 1964.

The following year the Supreme Council for Sport In Africa was formed, partly to promote sports and partly to enable most African countries to speak as one voice in such groups as the International Olympic Committee and the Commonwealth Games. The threat of boycott -- actually carried out at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 -- has kept South African teams and some athletes out of most of the world's international sports events.

For three reasons, Nelson Mandela called for sanctions against his country's government before, during, and after his Feb. 11 release from 27 years in prison: First, they apply strategic political pressure on the racist regime that has denied the vote in unitary elections since 1948 to its black and Asian citizens; second, they are expressions of spiritual kinship with 87 percent of South Africa's people who live under a discriminatory constitution with no bill of rights; and third, they are the least the world can do to protest such a morally reprehensible public policy as apartheid. Only Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) stood beside South Africa, and some other countries tried remaining neutral.

Sports boycotts have always been the most publicized and successful of these sanctions because they involve famous athletes. Economic, military and cultural prohibitions were more easily evaded. Many have countered with the argument that the United States would lose its leverage if all ties were broken. In truth the United States never really tried to use this so-called leverage because of South Africa's position as a source of raw materials (It has bounteous supplies of almost everything except oil).

To some American business and political leaders, Mandela said: "We want only that which made you {the United States} great -- democracy." For over a century, black South Africans have never had it. In his address Monday to a joint session of Congress he very well may praise our Constitution's framers while challenging its legatees to live up to it. After all, to do otherwise "wouldn't be 'cricket.' "