Grassroots sport diplomacy through lens of Japan’s host town initiative for Tokyo 2020
For Japan, development cooperation is one of the most important diplomatic tools essential for its proactive contribution to peace, stability, and co-prosperity with the international community. In sports, the focus tends to be on the role of elite sport or government-run federations in facilitating diplomacy across borders but the role of different actors (e.g., NGOs, organising committees, local governments, communities and individuals) rarely get the spotlight.
How can one move beyond government/ministry-led sport diplomacy? This is where this article would like to introduce grassroots sport diplomacy (GSD), defined as a set of practices, methods and activities built on grassroots sport actions developed at a glocal scale and benefiting from a sectorial and cross-sectorial approach. In 2017, the International Sport and Culture Association (ISCA) coined the term and as part of the European Commission’s Erasmus+ programme to explore how civil society organisations work across borders and take sport diplomacy from being a handshake between elite actors to diplomatic actions at the grassroots level.
Graduate research undertaken by the lead author of this article looks into GSD through the perspective of Japan’s unique Host Town Initiative for the Olympic and Paralympic games. People across Japan interacted with athletes/people of counterpart countries and regions participating in Tokyo 2020. Local governments, cities and towns across Japan registered as host-towns and invited participating countries to their towns to train their athletes and engage in cross-cultural understanding of each other’s country through wide interaction with citizens across all ages. The Secretariat of the Headquarters for the Promotion of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games was involved in the activities that were led by the local mayor and city officials. Here we describe three such host towns.
Kurobe (took part in an exchange with India)
Declared as a "Sports City," Kurobe City encourages its citizens to play 'one sport for each person'. Kurobe believes that Olympics are a great way for human well-being. Covid-19 impeded the training before the Games. However, host town Kurobe continued to support some of the planned activities, such as promoting Indian culture (for example, through yoga workshops) and food (such as serving Indian food to young children at school) among its citizensduring the Tokyo 2020 timeframe.
Kurobe steadfastly continued to engage the Indian archery team even after the Olympics, organising the first India Cup in 2022 in Kurobe with the national team, and interacting with archers (young to senior) across prefectures. All this showcased the close ties and ‘people-to-people’ exchanges at the grassroots level between Indian athletes, city officials and citizens through sport and culture.
Hachimantai is famous for not only the Ashiro Rindo flowers (controls over 35% of the domestic market share and Japan's largest production volume) but also traditional craftsmanship using local timber (creating bowls, chopsticks, etc.). Hachimantai's hosting of Rwanda started with sharing knowledge and expertise to grow the Rindo flower in Rwanda, with its climate also being suitable for its cultivation, thereby contributing to Rwanda's economy through its export to Europe. Hachimantai also hosted Rwandan athletes for a pre-Games training camp (road cycling, athletics, beach volleyball and swimming) and created an understanding about the country in the local community by organising diverse cultural events and interactions with school children through school visits. This host town presented another unique example of a grassroots-level exchange including both sport diplomacy as a platform and local industry expertise to promote development.
Sakai-machi has a rich history with Argentina going back 90 years. In 1937, a community centre called "Casa Montenegro" was built. In 2016, the town of Sakai was registered as the host town of Argentina and in 2018, as part of Tokyo 2020, the Argentinian National Olympic Committee and town of Sakai signed an MoU which provided Argentina's judo, tennis and field hockey teams with a pre-games training opportunity along with developing the sporting facilities of the town. These facilities provide a legacy platform for young athletes in Sakai as Sakai-machi wants to be a ‘Preferred Place to Live’.
Learnings from host towns
First, the programme showcased the potential of host towns and their future impact if sustained. This could be through continued cultural exchanges (history, education, etc.), dialogue with Tokyo 2020 athletes and young up-coming athletes for regular training camps, workshops and joint competitions, among many others. Second, a key aspect of the GSD could also involve government in a public-private partnership where initiatives might be launched by the government but implemented by city officials, local organisations and citizens. Grassroots diplomacy programme organizers can be practitioners or academics with content expertise or individuals with a strong pulse on local issues, culture, and community needs.
In the grassroots exchanges, diplomats are not official diplomats (appointed by the government) but are players and citizens from the host town. This type of people-to-people structure serves as a liaison between a political organization and the community. This is a major contribution to international friendship. The next step is two-way diplomacy where the representatives including the youth (‘sustainers’ of the cooperation) from host towns should be able to visit the participating countries. As stated by Blom et al. (2020), this two-way exchange allows for the shift of ‘the other’ to move from external outsider status to external insider through the development of shared experiences, collaborative engagements, and mutual understanding.
The authors would like to thank the project of FY2022 Japan Sport Agency and Japan Sport Council, SFT, and Tsukuba International Academy for Sport Studies(TIAS), University of Tsukuba.
Anirban Chakraborty2,3* and Randeep Rakwal3,4
Graduate School of Comprehensive Human Sciences, and Tsukuba International Academy for Sport Studies (TIAS2.0), and 3Institute of Health and Sport Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan
*Correspondence: [email protected]
- Blom, L. C., Magat, P. A., & Dichter, H. L (2020). Grassroots diplomacy through coach education: Americans, Jordanians and Tajiks. Soccer and Society, 21(5), 535–550. https://doi.org/10.1080/14660970.2019.1689125
- Grassroots Sport Diplomacy - Overview Mapping and Definitions