FranceAndUS: Sports and diplomacy hiding in plain sight
For more than a century, different types of sports diplomacy have fostered stronger relations between the United States and its oldest ally, France.
Although the cultural endeavors of food, fashion, or film drive public consciousness of citizen interactions, the French and American sports story hides in plain sight. Today sports serve as one of the more democratic milieus in both societies, thus sports diplomacy between these two countries is an instructive example of how this prism exhibits the intersection of sport and democracy.
Sports diplomacy is when the acts of diplomacy (communication, representation, negotiation) intersect within and around the sporting world, as detailed by Stuart Murray, J Simon Rofe, and Geoff Pigman. Many people think of sports diplomacy as that engaged in or organized by officially credentialed representatives of states. Historically this meant diplomats, ambassadors, heads of state, or elite athletes representing their nation in officially sanctioned international competition, such as at the Olympics or FIFA World Cup. But in an Internet-connected globalizing world, the notion of who engages in sports diplomacy has become more varied—and democratized. It is no longer just elite officials or athletes who engage in sports diplomacy; today it is increasingly everyday citizens in civil society (non-state sports actors) who do so.
Some of the earliest French-American examples come from how credentialed diplomats used sports informally to better interact with and understand their foreign counterparts and environments while representing their home country’s democratic ideals. Two U.S. Consuls in early twentieth-century France, George H. Jackson and William H. Hunt, used rugby to integrate into their consular districts in La Rochelle and St. Étienne, respectively, while they communicated, represented, and negotiated local attitudes and ideas about “America,” Americans, and Black Americans. French Ambassador to the United States J.J. Jusserand, who served from 1903 until 1924, used tennis as a way to mingle with the diplomatic corps, as well as with the U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt; Jusserand was part of Roosevelt’s famed “tennis cabinet,” a cohort that included several executive branch officials and close advisors. Through sport, Jusserand forged a close personal friendship with the U.S. president, which helped his official work on behalf of the French republic.
The First World War democratized sport, not just which sports were played but also who and where they were played. This was true of football (soccer), basketball and other sports disciplines. By the Cold War era, sports were increasingly used by countries of all sizes and stripes to cultivate what Joseph Nye has described as “soft power,” the ability to lead and influence thanks to non-military or economic might. As a result, noted historians Robert Edelman and Christopher J. Young, “the very liminality of sport makes it both the hardest form of soft power and the softest form of hard power.”
Sport became one of the more democratic milieus in both the United States and France. Anyone could play, regardless of socio-economic or political background and sports helped assimilation or integration into the national body politic. Sports reinforced desirable traits prized by democratic societies, such as playing by the rules (transparency), team work, fair play, and advancement based on merit. And, as international travel and communications began to become faster, less expensive, and more accessible, the growth of migration in global sports, including between France and the United States, opened up new opportunities for everyday citizens to engage, interact, and learn from each other in different ways.
The impact of this people to people dialogue is often overlooked. Yet citizens participating in sport can be the unseen heroes and sheroes of this dialogue between different cultures, going a step further than intercultural dialogue through organized grassroots sport activities and exchange. What if you consider the impact of citizens' interaction through sport across the world, the power of the cheerfulness and the links created as a plain sight expression of contributing to and encouraging healthier lifestyle as well as understanding in the world. Could this be a powered up version of a democratic sport culture? This movement is what ISCA (the International Sport and Culture Association)- together with other partners- has coined Grassroots Sport Diplomacy. And just like them, we believe, “the soft power of these exchanges opens more doors for people to participate and ultimately lead to more inclusion in sport and physical activity, while promoting international diplomatic relations and wider policy objectives.”
Today there are many different sports through which the French and American sports diplomacy story plays out, including basketball, skiing, tennis, and football (soccer). The people who engage in sports diplomacy continue to communicate, represent, and negotiate about their respective countries through cultural, technical, and knowledge exchanges. At the same time, they also democratize sports more broadly by helping to make it possible for others to follow in their footsteps.
Take the example of the Global Sports Mentoring Program. Through the mingling and exchange of ideas powered at its finest by the U.S. Department of State in partnership with espnW and implementing partner the UT Center for Sport Peace and Society, participants from all over the world are gathered, equipped and empowered to realize they are not alone in their fight for justice and better access to sport for all.
Of course, one program cannot change the face of the world, for there remain barriers to participation in all countries. But this is where the exchange of ideas and good practices among emerging leaders helps reshape the experience across internal, local, national and international borders. This kind of programme, leveraging the power of the formal diplomatic power of embassies across the world and an intentional educational curriculum of activation and empowerment is probably one of the most cost effective approaches to support the democratic expression of citizens being empowered to unlock their potential. The impact of this is tremendous - individually and collectively. Indeed, through the interaction and carefully designed programme of learning and activation, trust is being built not only between the beneficiaries but also between all stakeholders. And so is a long-lasting willingness to collaborate. It therefore goes far beyond the individuals benefiting from it, as it cross-fertilized through multidimensional community-based powered-up initiatives.
The next two upcoming Summer Games, Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028, will spotlight these strong and growing FranceAndUS sports stories. As the official diplomatic alliance celebrates its 250th anniversary in 2028, we hope to see increased activation of the sporting ties that bind these two democracies through one of their more democratic milieus.
Written by Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff and Carole Ponchon
About the authors
Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff (LinkedIn bio) is a historian, writer, speaker, and consultant working at the intersection of global sports, communication, and diplomacy. Director of FranceAndUS, and author of Basketball Empire: France and the Making of a Global NBA and WNBA, The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010, and Views from the Embassy: The Role of the U.S. Diplomatic Community in France, 1914, she co-directed the SOAS University of London Basketball Diplomacy in Africa Project tied to the NBA’s Basketball Africa League. Krasnoff is an affiliate of the UT Center for Sport, Peace, and Society and Adjunct Faculty at the Tisch Institute for Global Sport, New York University.
Carole Ponchon (LinkedIn bio), born French, is a world citizen, a sports lover and an inward and outward movement ambassador. Deeply convinced that sport and play can be the catalyst for a better world and a malleable impactful tool, she has been acting in the sport sector at European and international level for almost 15 years now. After 9 years working in non-for-profit organisations, she founded BeInnovActiv’ her own company in 2018 to unlock potential, empower people and drive social change through education, sport and corporate social responsibility.
She is an experienced project leader, a writer, a podcast host and a consultant working at the intersection of global sport, EU affairs, communication, monitoring and fundraising.
Her most recent achievements include: (1) the coordination of an online e-course on Healh Enhancing Physical Activities, (2) the successful running of the SWinG project designed to support and open doors for more women in the board room of sport organisations where she acted as Project Leader and Peer Mentor and Mentoring Engineer, and (3] the development of a special #TeamUp curriculum for the 10th year anniversary of the Global Sport Mentoring program, as well as (4) contributing to a story-telling project on the impact of Title IX.
Her current work lies around sport for social change projects ranging from sport and mental health to sport contribution to the European Green Deal.