The Power of Sport: Should sport and diplomacy mix?

Written by Kristen Livingston

Photo by U.S. Embassy New Delhi

 “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can awaken hope where there was previously only despair. Sport speaks to people in a language they can understand.” Nelson Mandela



Sporting events like the Olympics, the World Cup, the European Championship, the Africa Cup of Nations, and the Super Bowl are some of the most-watched events across the world.

Few things are as widely followed, understood and propagated on a mass scale as modern sports are, argues “Gaming the World: How Sports Are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture,” authors Andrei Markovits and Lars Rensmann. While the rules, sanctions, size of field, numbers of players etc., may differ from one sport to another, they are the same in every country. From New York to London, Nairobi to Tehran, Beijing to Buenos Aires, a goal is a goal, a touchdown a touchdown, and the meaning of a red card or the losing of a wicket, can all be universally understood.

 “Sport is a language everyone of us can speak,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, and its power as a tool in a country’s public diplomacy arsenal is being increasingly recognised. Mixing sport and diplomacy can help meet various foreign policy objectives: to bring about regime change, open the door for dialogue when it is closed to politics and to arouse a sense of national pride. This mixture however, is by no means “new.”

In South Africa under apartheid, sport diplomacy efforts took shape in the form of boycotts and the move by the International Olympic Committee to withdraw the country’s 1964 Summer Olympics invitation, contributing to the disintegration of the apartheid regime. Perhaps the most notable example of sport diplomacy was “The ping heard round the world,” in 1971. With the entrance of the first group of Americans into China for a series of ping-pong matches since the takeover of Communism in 1949, lines of communication were opened between the two countries. And, let us not forget Canada’s “hockey diplomacy” to help restore the country’s national pride.

Spurring the idea for this post, two more recent examples can also be seen. In an effort by the US State Department to use sport diplomacy, two veteran baseball players, Barry Larkin and Joe Logan, will travel to South Korea for a week on February 13, 2011 where they will meet North Korean defectors, hold baseball clinics, visit local schools and discuss the importance of diversity. Secondly, Gerard DeGroot’s article, “Sports and Politics- Sometimes a Good Mix,” highlights the power of the World Cup to open the mind and help foster international harmony. With

FIFA’s December 2010 announcement of the winning bids, the 2018 World Cup going to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar, “Through this, the people of Russia and Qatar have been told that they belong to a world community based on harmony, not antagonism. By the same token, the rest of the world has been given the opportunity (through watching or attending the World Cup) to discover the realities of Russia and Qatar beyond stereotypes. If football opens the world just a tiny bit, that should be cause for celebration.”

But before we get carried away and celebrate too prematurely, surely we have to ask if sports diplomacy actually works in helping to achieve foreign policy objectives?  Does the fostering of dialogue and understanding that sport can create have the capacity to bring about sustainable, long-term changes? It seems some balance is called for or we risk an “imbalanced approach,” focusing too much on the capacity of sport to bring about change, at the cost of neglecting deeper institutional and structural issues.

Two of the most important attributes of sport that make it a valuable tool of public diplomacy is what can be considered sport’s arbitrary, value-neutral rules and unscripted nature.

“Just as the rules of language are largely random, the rules of sport follow little rhyme or reason. Thus, there is nothing inherently good or bad about them. And precisely because of their arbitrariness (which renders them value- neutral) they are readily accepted and understood across cultures, nations, communities, and classes- human collectives that often do not want to understand each other otherwise” (Markovits & Rensmann, 2010, p. 45).

The idea that virtually any sport can be universally understood and that the outcome of a game is never a foregone conclusion, give sport its genuine quality (“Gaming the World”). It is this quality that makes sports an unadulterated form of diplomacy that can foster relationships and cooperation across borders. However, when we mix sport with diplomacy we put at risk its value- neutral nature and genuineness by attaching a political goal to it. If sport ambassadors are seen as just a guise for another tool of influence by a foreign government, effectiveness is lost – and can even turn negative. 

While sport has the power to bridge divides as the Football For Peace programme (F4P) has shown, it also has the power to solidify cultural, ethnic, and political identities while reaffirming emotions and igniting old rivalries. In this context, sport can act as that one matchstick needed to light an existing pool of gasoline. In the already tense relationship between El Salvador and Honduras, sport acted as the catalyst in what came to be known as the “Football War,” characterised by widespread violence, riots and exhibitions of extreme nationalistic sentiments during a series of World Cup qualifying matches in 1970. Dictators have also sought to harness to power of sport to further power and other diplomatic objectives. Hitler’s Olympic games in 1936 are a case in point.

Much like the Internet, sport diplomacy can be used both as a force for “good” as well as for “bad”. It can incite positive change and open the door for dialogue but at the same time it can reaffirm boundaries and identities, further solidifying divisions. The question that presents itself is, do the benefits outweigh the dangers in mixing diplomacy and sport? In the final analysis, simply because a tool can be used for “bad” it should not completely rule out its use. A self-evident conclusion- yes, but perhaps this gives something to those who are fond of using the cliché, politics (and now diplomacy) and sport don’t mix, something to think about.

With the power to unite, awaken hope and inspire change, the mixture of sport and diplomacy is certainly an area we will be seeing more of in the future. We just have to keep in mind that sport diplomacy should in no way be seen as a quick-fix measure. When sport is mixed in with other facets of diplomacy and concrete foreign policy changes, perhaps the positive vision articulated by Nelson Mandela can be further actualized.

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6 Responses to The Power of Sport: Should sport and diplomacy mix?

  1. Pingback: O Esporte como ferramenta de Diplomacia « Gabriel Mayr

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  4. Tamara says:

    For more on how Mandela used the power of sport to bring the South Africans together and to raise the reputation of South Africa abroad, read this: https://tamarasfootballmosaic.wordpress.com/2013/12/09/in-memoriam-nelson-mandela/

  5. Pingback: Ping-Pong Diplomacy and Beyond | Public Diplomacy and Global Communication 2013 (b)

  6. Pingback: Presidents, Piercings and Ping-Pong Politics | Public Diplomacy and Global Communication 2013 (b)

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