Mandela died at his family home in Johannesburg at the age of 95, succumbing to a lung infection, with South Africa president Jacob Zuma confirming the news in a live press conference.
One of the most iconic moments in Mandela's long-time connection with sport was at the 1995 Rugby World Cup when he used the tournament - the first in South Africa since he was elected president - in an attempt to build some positive feeling amongst his country's population.
South African Rugby Union president Oregan Hoskins touched on that moment in his tribute to the man known as Madiba.
"Madiba was a true icon of inspiration and as much as South Africa owes so much to him, so does rugby," Hoskins said.
"Through his extraordinarily vision, he was able to use the 1995 Rugby World Cup as an instrument to help promote nation-building just one year after South Africa's historic first democratic election.
"Mr Mandela was also instrumental in retaining the Springbok as the emblem for our national team at a time when a chorus of voices advocated a change of the symbol, for various reasons.
"It was an act of reconciliation and generosity of spirit, which no-one could have expected."
While Mandela threw his support behind the sports in South Africa that traditionally were the favourites of the white minority, his preferred sport - like many of the black majority - was football and he played a key role in bringing the FIFA World Cup to his country.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter joined in the platitudes for Mandela and remembered how the crowd received him at the World Cup final in Johannesburg in 2010.
"He and I shared an unwavering belief in the extraordinary power of football to unite people in peace and friendship and to teach basic social and educational values as a school of life," Blatter said in a statement.
"When he was honoured and cheered by the crowd at Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium on 11 July 2010, it was as a man of the people, a man of their hearts, and it was one of the most moving moments I have ever experienced.
"For him, the World Cup in South Africa truly was a dream come true."
In other statements of respect, Cricket South Africa tweeted: "RIP Tata Mandela. It is because of you that a represented Proteas team can express their talent across the globe #mandela."
The leading men's tennis player, Rafael Nadal, added on Twitter: "Rest in peace Nelson Mandela, you have been a role model to the world. My most sincere condolences to family and friends."
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