More jawing, less warring: Sport diplomacy to move forward
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"Matchmaking" - exploring the relationship between sports diplomacy and sport for development.

Dr Connor Spreng, Executive Director of the Swiss Academy for Development, acknowledged in launching the guidebook - Bridging the Divide in Sport and Sustainable Development - that “it is hard” for sport for development to have the impact that many would like. A relative lack of traction in policy making circles, evidenced over many years, reveals an inconsistent appreciation and application of the opportunities that Sport for Development (S4D) can provide to meeting policy goals such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Spreng’s remarks also demonstrate both the space into which the Bridging the Divide guidebook can add value, and the opportunity for an explanatory tool to assist in translating the impact of S4D to policy makers. This brief article offers a complimentary account of the opportunity provided by an enhanced awareness, appreciation, and application of sport diplomacy. It does so by considering the hitherto under explored relationship between S4D and sports diplomacy. The former is well known to this audience; the latter is increasingly the focus of a discourse in concept and practice by scholars and practitioners operating in this conjoined space.

Derived from this dialogue, sports diplomacy provides a global purview to an interconnected ecosystem of the sporting and diplomatic realms – an explanatory overlay to the network of evolving networks within the worlds of sport and diplomacy based on the core characteristics of diplomacy: representation, negotiation, and communication.

These core characteristics are fundamental to an expanded understanding of diplomacy - derived from Global Diplomacy thinking (Holmes & Rofe, 2016) - which allows for the appreciation of a greater range of actors participating in and undertaking diplomatic transactions than is often thought about when one considers ambassadors, embassies, and perhaps cocktail parties. In turn, this allows for the stakeholders and participants of S4D to be usefully considered as actors in the diplomatic realm, both in terms of being self-aware and in being recognised by others for the diplomatic qualities of communication, representation, and negotiation that S4D people and projects encompass.

My goal in sharing this reflexive, expanding understanding of diplomacy is twofold: 1) to enhance the understanding and appreciation of sports diplomacy, and 2) to engage a dialogue which enhances the opportunity for S4D to demonstrate its impact.

Considering the expanded understanding of diplomacy provides for a more nuanced understanding of purportedly ‘classic’ examples of sport and diplomacy coming together such as the ‘Ping-Pong Diplomacy’ of the 1970s, or the Olympic boycotts of 1980 and 1984. Instead, it allows us to see diplomacy at work across the development space, and particularly the most globally visible embodiment of that in the SDGs. The SDGs are both a result of a diplomatic process and a framework for diplomacy to take place to work towards achieving the seventeen goals.

Debate about the SDGs is plentiful (whether they are realisable is the subject of a different article), but I would like to focus on SDG 17: ‘Partnerships for the Goals’. This goal speaks to the network of networks that sport diplomacy is simultaneously highlighting and facilitating in aggregating different stakeholders – including S4D organisations and colleagues – and their non-aligned goals into contextually defined and aligned purposes. It is the opportunity for unrealised dialogues to be realised by those in the S4D realm and, crucially, those across the diplomatic space in multi-directional mode, that encourages further reflection and potential alignments of complimentary interests and means to overcome disjuncture.

"Fundamentally, I believe sport is the best diplomat we have," Lord Sebastian Coe’s remarked as chair of the IAAF in offering a rationale for hosting the 2019 World Athletic Championships in Doha, Qatar, home of the forthcoming 2022 Men’s FIFA World Cup. Coe’s remarks, born of a dual career as sportsman and sports administrator, give sense to the conjuncture between the realms of sport and diplomacy. The development of sports diplomacy as a conceptual framework and as reflective awareness amongst the breadth of stakeholders enhances practitioners’ and policy makers’ mutual understanding and abilities to operate across the sportscape.

Dr J Simon Rofe, University of Leeds, UK.

Simon is a leading expert in the study and practice of Sports Diplomacy, and author of Sport and Diplomacy: Games within Games (MUP, 2018). He is also the co-PI on the Erasmus+ funded project – Towards a European Sports Diplomacy Framework. 


The arguments in this article are based on the previously published: J Simon Rofe (2021): Sport Diplomacy and Sport for Development SfD: A Discourse of Challenges and Opportunity, Journal of Global Sport Management, DOI: 10.1080/24704067.2021.201002


All countries
All regions
All sports
Sustainable Development Goals
16 - Peace, justice and strong institutions.
17 - Partnership for the goals
Target Group

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