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Essay: Effectiveness of sports diplomacy in international relations

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The influence of sports over international politics in today’s world cannot be understated. Today, there are about the same number of National Olympic Committees in the International Olympic Committee as there are Member States in the United Nations . Billions around the world tuned in to watch the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics (Jackson & Haigh, 2008). Sporting events such as the Olympic Games provide opportunities not just for sportsmen and sportswomen of various nations to shine, but also for sports diplomacy to be conducted. Although sports diplomacy can have multiple varieties, the discussions in this paper pertain to international sports being consciously employed by politicians as an instrument of diplomacy (Murray & Pigman, 2014). This paper analyses the effectiveness of sports diplomacy in international relations and the various obstacles standing in its way.
Effectiveness of sports diplomacy in politics
Sporting events provide alternative platforms for countries to improve international relations beyond existing foreign policy positions (Murray & Pigman, 2014), especially when tensions are high and official avenues of diplomacy may not be available. In such situations, sports can provide a less formal and political platform allowing attention to be diverted from hostility, leading to progress in diplomatic ties. One prominent example was “cricket diplomacy”, where cricket events between India and Pakistan allowed leaders of both countries to meet and mend ties which were strained by conflicts between the two countries (Bandyopadhyay, 2008). China and the United States (US) also famously engaged in “ping-pong diplomacy” during the Cold War to defuse tensions, which were caused mainly by the two countries’ competing political ideology (Kobierecki, 2016). Less known, however, was “gimme diplomacy”, where the then leaders of Singapore and the US played a series of golf games to mend strained bilateral relations, which resulted from Singapore’s insistence on caning an American teenager for certain offences in 1993 (Chan, 2019).
Sports diplomacy is also a means of “soft power” (Nye, 2004). Countries regularly use sporting events to paint a more favourable image of themselves in order to improve and strengthen their reputation. This enhances their international standing so that they can attract or co-opt other nations to “want what [they] want” (Grix, 2013), reflecting the third form of power (Gaventa, 2006). During the Cold War, athletes from developing nations were trained by the US in the hope that they would view the US more favourably than the Soviet Union, should they achieve athletic success (Duckworth & Hunt, 2017). China has similarly been using sport to shape a desirable international image for many years, most notably with its spectacular hosting of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (Kobierecki, 2017). In fact, Germany’s successful and strategic hosting of the 2006 FIFA World Cup to alter its image among ‘foreign publics’ has been empirically documented (Grix & Houlihan, 2014). In a bid to demonstrate its willingness to resolve problematic issues with other countries, Turkey has unwaveringly resolved to host such events as the Olympic Games and the UEFA European Championship (Polo, 2015).
Obstacles to sports diplomacy in politics
The oft-quoted remark by George Orwell that sports is “war minus the shooting” is perhaps related to one notably undesirable consequence of staging sporting events between nations, known as sports nationalism (Tosa, 2015). Hostile nationalistic fervour can be heightened during sporting events, resulting in increased tensions between nations, and potentially undoing the good that had been done. Once, after South Korea (ROK) won Japan in a World Cup qualification match, one midfielder from the ROK team took off his jersey and foisted a sign over his head which read “Dokdo is our land”, referring to a territorial dispute over two islets lying between Korea and Japan. Disputes between the South Korean and Japanese government ensued, and diplomatic relations between the two countries went south (Cha, 2013). Similarly, during the 2004 Asian Football Cup hosted by China, Japan faced immense hostility from Chinese spectators, who sang anti-Japanese songs and demanded that the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands be returned (Manzenreiter, 2008). Interestingly, while sports is political, it is especially political in Asia (Cha, 2013), perhaps primarily due to the rarity of global sporting events in Asia (Tosa, 2015).
Sporting events can unfortunately be a hotbed for violence to be perpetuated. Due to the global reach of such events, in particular mega-events such as the Olympic Games or the World Cup, terrorists may seize the opportunity to “spread the greatest fear with the least effort” (Kuper, 2010). Perhaps the starkest example of this was the 1972 Munich Games tragedy, where 11 Israeli athletes were kidnapped and brutally murdered by Black September, a radical Palestinian terrorist group. After the attack, the terrorists even proudly proclaimed that no event other than the Olympics could have allowed the operation in Munich to “echo through the consciousness of every man in the world” (Murray & Pigman, 2014, 1105). In fact, between 1972 and 2005, 171 sport-related terrorist attacks have been logged with the US State Department (Kuper, 2010, 293). Beyond terrorism, sports may even fan the flames between nations and cause them to go to war, as was the case when El Salvador and Honduras fought a brief “100 Hours War” in 1969. This was due in part to rioting between fans of both countries during a qualification round for the 1970 World Cup, which compounded with other pre-existing problems between the two nations (Overall & Hagedorn, 2017).
As the literature has shown, sports diplomacy can be an effective and useful tool for countries to conduct diplomatic relations between one another, by defusing pre-existing tensions and paving the way for stronger diplomatic ties. The universal nature of sports allows it to be used as alternative means of diplomacy, especially when countries are constrained by their existing foreign policy positions, such as between China and the US during the Cold War. Mega sporting events such as the Olympic Games provide opportunities for countries to enhance their global image and to be regarded as equals in the international arena, arguably one prerequisite for meaningful diplomatic relations. However, the literature has also highlighted the darker, Hobbesian aspect to sport, namely that of sports nationalism and violence in sports, whether expressed through terrorism, rioting, or at times even war. These are major obstacles in the way of sports diplomacy being used effectively in international relations. In light of increasing globalisation and prevalence of staging sporting events between nations, it might not be wise to disregard or to throw out sports diplomacy as a political tool merely because of the undesirable obstacles discussed above and elsewhere. Obstacles such as terrorism may be prevented or mitigated to some degree by, for instance, improving and heightening security measures during sporting events. Sports nationalism however may not be preventable as it is caused by a multitude of factors (Seippel, 2018), but stricter rules and harsher penalties can be implemented to deter athletes and fans from outwardly displaying hostile signs of nationalism. As long as politicians approach sports diplomacy with clear goals, a strategic plan and a great deal of caution, we opine that it can remain a relevant and promising tool in the brokering of peace between and amongst nations in the years to come.

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