The US Department of State uses sports to transcend cultural and diplomatic barriers. The State Department has empowered thousands of young men and women through its people-to-people exchanges and support of grassroots programmes.
The State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ SportsUnited programming began in 2002 as an outreach tool to Muslim communities after 9/11.
Since then, they have used sports to inspire individuals in over 140 countries. Programmes such as sports envoy visits, workshops and grants have strengthened communities and fostered constructive intercultural dialogue.
Based on regional requests for sports programming, SportsUnited officers develop an appropriate theme, such as conflict resolution or health and wellness, which ties to foreign policy priorities.
Sports Envoys such as Michelle Kwan and Cal Ripken, Jr. have traveled to countries to run sport clinics and teach leadership values.
Young athletes also visit the U.S. for two-week programmes to learn about American culture and how to impact their neighborhoods upon returning home.
These people-to-people exchanges often engage communities that are harder to reach due to linguistic or cultural barriers. Evidence of progress can be difficult to monitor but the positive impact is clear.
Trina Bolton, a programme officer for the State Department, emphasised that, “the SportsUnited programme has truly brought people together through the power of sport. Our sports programmes and grants have had concrete outcomes.
"We see alumni from the exchanges use their sports diplomacy experiences positively, whether they start a track programme at their school in the Caribbean, establish an outdoor sports and tourism business in Macedonia, or create opportunities for girls to become sports journalists in Zimbabwe.”
Several countries have observed measurable success with sports diplomacy. AusAid, Australia’s international development agency, has partnered with the Australian Sports Commission on an initiative that uses sports to improve the health and well-being of disabled citizens.
Initiatives focused on empowering women have had the greatest impact. SportsUnited has used Title IX legislation as a model for gender equality.
Many alumnae of State Department exchanges have started afterschool sports programmes or improved policies at national sports federations.
In the Global Sports Mentoring Programme, a collaboration with espnW, American female executives partner with young women leaders to create opportunities for other girls to succeed on the field and in the classroom.
Government-sponsored sports programmes will continue to face challenges. However, the adaptability of sport makes it an asset for international diplomacy. Sports programmes can address a variety of issues ranging from HIV/AIDS to environmentalism.
With the increased demand for sport and its proven ability to foster intercultural dialogue, sports diplomacy will likely become a more integral facet of foreign policy in the years ahead.
[This article has been edited by the Operating Team]