The diplomatic opportunities and challenges presented by international sports events: A snapshot from the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup
In this short spotlight, the focus is on international sports events and speaks to the question: what role do international sports events play in conversations about sport’s ability to promote democracy and diplomacy? Further conversation is needed, in particular to consider how extensively the sport for development sector is consulted in international sports events planning and delivery.
In a review of two decades of peer-reviewed academic journal articles engaging with sports diplomacy, we discovered that of the 224 articles reviewed 36% used sport mega-events and 11% used large sport events as the type of sporting activity being studied. These figures demonstrate that academic research on sports diplomacy is dominated by a focus on sports events. There is an opportunity for the sport for development sector to gain a larger voice and presence in international sports events research and practice. To illustrate some of these opportunities and challenges, this contribution will concentrate on the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, an event co-hosted by Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia.
Different stakeholders connected to international sports events recognise explicitly and implicitly the diplomatic potential of an event. In 2021, the FIFA President Gianni Infantino gave a keynote speech on the topic stating “sports diplomacy is a relatively new term. A new term, however, which describes an old practice: the use of sport to realise policy goals, to help bring about positive social change. Harnessing the power of football to benefit society, through the team-work of our partnerships, is sports diplomacy in action.” As argued by others, the current FIFA leadership are positioning themselves as ‘global peacemaker’ (e.g. Beissel and Ternes, 2022). Yet is this a top-down approach? Or will FIFA and others consult more widely in their quest to realise ambitious social change.
In relation to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, event organisers have developed varying community and societal aims (e.g. AsOne, Australia legacy plan, and Aotearoa New Zealand legacy plan). Throughout the planning a distinct narrative has been developed by event organisers, to promote gender equality and the voices of Indigenous communities. For example, “all tournament host cities feature the English wording alongside te reo Māori and First Nations Australian Traditional Place name translations” in venue announcements, branding and promotions. A global audience will tune in to watch matches in Eden Park, Auckland/Tāmaki Makaurau or Stadium Australia, Sydney/Gadigal, amongst others. Further to this, the event organisers have set up an all-women First Nations Australian and Māori panel to advise the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023.
The aims around inclusion provoke a higher level of scrutiny on how the tournament enacts and delivers on them. A challenge, therefore, is when actions do not match the tournament’s inclusive rhetoric.
To illustrate this challenge, a diplomatic incident has unfolded when rumours emerged that FIFA had formalised a sponsorship deal with Saudi Arabia’s tourism board, Visit Saudi, for the event. This rumoured action caused a strong response from Football Australia, New Zealand Football as it was deemed incoherent with their respective tournament aims. The controversy surrounds Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and according to James Johnson, Football Australia’s chief executive officer, there was “an overwhelming consensus that this partnership does not align with our collective vision for the tournament.”
This is not the first time there has been incoherence in action and words by stakeholders connected to an international sports event, and it will not be the last. The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup provides us with another example of the opportunities and challenges international sports events offer, as a vehicle to ‘bring about positive social change.’ It illustrates the important role the sport for development sector must play, to be a voice and hold people accountable in this events space. How we achieve a stronger voice and accountability must be discussed further.
About the author
Verity Postlethwaite is a Doctoral Prize Fellow (Sport, Business and Society) at Loughborough University in the UK. Her research interests bring together sports policy, diplomacy, and events to consider relations between different actors in national and international contexts.
This contribution is underpinned by work across two research projects I’ve contributed to (1) a collaboration between Emma Sherry and Claire Jenkin looking at sports diplomacy across the Commonwealth, with a focus on the UK and Australia; (2) a research collective formed by Adam Beissel, Andrew Grainger, Julie Brice and others around all things 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. A number of publications and events connected to these research projects are cited below. Please do get in contact if you want to discuss anything further or to request copies of the cited materials.
5th May 2023: IHD 2023 – Call for Papers – International History and Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century - ‘Power Games’: Sports and Diplomacy in Global Contexts
Verity Postlethwaite, Claire Jenkin, and Emma Sherry (2022) ‘A Gendered Focused Review of Sports Diplomacy’ in Molnár, G. and Bullingham, R. (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Gender Politics in Sport and Physical Activity.
Adam Beissel, Verity Postlethwaite & Andrew Grainger (2022) “Winning the women’s world cup”: gender, branding, and the Australia/New Zealand As One 2023 social media strategy for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023™, Sport in Society.
Ellie Crabill, Callie Maddox, & Adam Beissel (2023) We Did It: A Content Analysis of Australian and New Zealand Online News Media Coverage of the Bid Process for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, International Journal of Sport Communication.
Julie Brice, Andrew Grainger, Adam Beissel & Verity Postlethwaite (2022) The world cup trilogy: an analysis of Aotearoa New Zealand’s leverage strategies for the women’s cricket, rugby, and football world cups, International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics.