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Sports diplomacy or sport as an agenda-setter for diplomacy?


Sports diplomacy or sport as an agenda-setter for diplomacy?

While there is much talk of using sport as a tool for diplomacy, many remain sceptical as the connection between sport and diplomacy is not always clear.

Traditionally, diplomacy as a term pertains to foreign policy, inter-governmental negotiations and even conflict resolution. Sport, in this sense, is not considered to be the greatest facilitator of diplomacy.

The different tracks of diplomacy
More recently however, diplomacy has been understood to operate on different levels, or "tracks". Whereas track one diplomacy typically deals with the "high politics" mentioned above, track two diplomacy often relates to unofficial dialogue that serves to encourage relationship-building and establish common ground.

The dialogue inspired by track two diplomacy can often be used to influence track one diplomacy. Similarly, other more grassroots versions of diplomacy can serve as agenda-setters for their more important counterparts.

It is for this reason that even the most seemingly insignificant forms of diplomacy should not be overlooked for their potential to have significant political impact. In this sense, sport does indeed possess diplomatic merit, some of which remains to be discovered and developed.

Making the connection between diplomacy and sport
Beyond what remains unclear about the relationship between sport and diplomacy or the nature of sports diplomacy, there are basic concepts of sport that can hardly be refuted.

Sport is a universal language; it is something we all have in common. The human body is maintained through physical activity, regardless of ability or choice of sport. Furthermore, sport transcends borders, political ideologies and religious affiliations. It does not rely on any of these things to serve as common ground.

Given these characteristics, sport can contribute to the unofficial dialogue that guides track two diplomacy. It may not be the deciding factor in a given state’s foreign policy, but it can certainly be used as a means of relationship-building.

When sport has influenced diplomacy

Looking back at one of the most high-profile instances of sports diplomacy may help to illustrate how sport can in fact serve as an agenda-setter that ultimately impacts diplomacy.

At a time when relations between China and the USA were frigid at best, an American ping pong player missed his bus and ended up getting a lift back to his hotel with the Chinese ping pong team. Despite the potentially awkward situation, the American athlete was given a silkscreen and in return, gave his Chinese counterpart a t-shirt adorned with a peace sign.

The gestures were picked up by several international media outlets, and what started out as two athletes acting as colleagues instead of adversaries turned into a global spectacle that has since been referred to as ping pong diplomacy.

Ping pong did not necessarily normalise relations between the two countries but it did provide common ground, acting as a bridge that gave both nations a reason to interact in a manner that transcended strained political relations.

Just as sport has become much more relevant to the field of development, so too can it play an increasing role in the evolution of diplomacy.


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Bradley Castelli


Wednesday, February 18, 2015 - 08:00