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The Power of Sport: Should sport and diplomacy mix?

The Power of Sport: Should sport and diplomacy mix?

“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. 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.

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 will travel to South Korea for a week on February 13, 2011 where they will meet North Korean defectors. 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.

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? 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.

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.

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.

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The Journal of Public Diplomacy Exchange

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011 - 23:00

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