Sports diplomacy as public diplomacy element
Diplomacy is a way of interaction between states in which they seek to influence each other's national interests without resorting to military force. The main function of diplomacy is to resolve disputed issues by peaceful means through negotiations and agreements. In the twentieth-century public diplomacy, or so-called people-to-people diplomacy, became widespread.
Public diplomacy includes aspects of international relations that go beyond its traditional sphere - the diplomacy of public organizations, informal groups and individuals representing various spheres of public life. One of these spheres is sports and by extension sports diplomacy, which today is an essential part of public diplomacy.
Sports diplomacy represents the official and unofficial activities of states, governments and special foreign policy agencies, aimed at implementing the foreign policy objectives of a state by organizing, conducting and participating in international sporting events. According to American researcher S. Murray, sports diplomacy is the act of diplomacy and representation, carried out by representatives of the sports institutions on behalf of and with the consent of the state. If diplomacy is seen as a means of achieving a state's foreign policy goals, sports diplomacy is one of several tools of such a toolbox. Such type of diplomacy uses the capabilities of athletes, sports officials and sports competitions to create an attractive image of their country to the foreign public.
The scope of participants in sports diplomacy is unusually wide: these are states, government agencies in the field of sport, international and national sports associations, athletes, coaches, sports professionals, the media, fan movements and etc. The activities of sports diplomacy can be divided into two directions, categorized as official and unofficial.
The official dimension involves the use of sport competitions as a platform for informal political meetings, discussion of current problems and development of agreements on certain issues. For example, during the 2022 Beijing Olympics, Chinese President Xi Jinping was to hold bilateral meetings with numerous leaders who came to the event - Russia, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Poland and many others. The unofficial dimension of sports diplomacy concerns the impact on foreign populations - sport serves as a psychological factor to illustrate the strength, power and success of a particular state. In particular, France sees sport as one of the instruments of international influence, the most important task of which is to improve the image of the country in the international arena, to reinforce the importance of French know-how and to promote the use of the French language.
Today, sports diplomacy acts as a factor of integration, serves as an "ambassador of peace", and helps to establish friendly relations between different countries and societies. But on the other hand, sports are also frequently used for different purposes, far from the achievement of peace in the world. In the context of particular political circumstances, international relationships and diplomatic objectives, sports diplomacy can be used both to resolve problematic issues and to serve as a trigger for conflicts or as an instrument of political pressure. This duality is the defining characteristic of sports as a political tool.
For example, the football match between the national teams of Iran and the United States at the 1998 FIFA World Cup was symbolic in terms of diplomatic relations. There was already a great amount of turmoil prior to the match due to political disputes between the two states. Nevertheless, athletes from both countries gave each other gifts and flowers, and were also photographed together before the match. The match was a symbol of the warm-up in Iran-US relations, which eventually led to the two countries playing each other in a friendly match in the United States in 2000.
However, major international competitions, besides having the positive effect of uniting people around the world, can also have a clear dividing trait. In addition, the mixing of sport and politics tends to be driven by the pursuit of selfish interests of countries that are not beneficial to world peace at all. Historically, the latter has been associated with the act of using sports for political manifestations via boycotting, athletes' isolation or propaganda. This may well include the actions of the German Nazis and Italian Fascists, who used international sports competitions to promote the domination of their new political systems and ideologies.
Nevertheless, there has been a noticeable increase of interest in sports diplomacy in contemporary international relations. It is no coincidence at the boundary of the XX-XXI centuries a new type of public diplomacy, such as sports diplomacy, is becoming more and more active in the arsenal of many states.
Nowadays, the practice of using sports as a tool of diplomacy is reflected not only in the hosting of competitions but also in the creation of programs, documents and institutions that in one way or another coordinate these activities. Particularly, the the U.S. Department of State has a special Sports Diplomacy Division, which is intended to establish a dialogue by means of sports with young people around the world. Meanwhile, in 2019 the Australian government adopted an ambitious "Sports Diplomacy 2030" strategy, which aims to enhance national attractiveness.
Therefore, governments see sport as an effective method of promoting national interests and projecting values and identity. Today we can talk about an absolutely new direction of diplomatic activity, which has its own unique means, mechanisms of activity and a special potential to develop dialogue between countries, both at multilateral and bilateral levels. It has acquired a definition in recent years and has become a full-fledged academic term within the framework of an extensive topic of public diplomacy.
About the author
Nikita Bokserov is SDSN Youth Sustainable Development Goals Coordinator and a sport for peace and development researcher.