The U.S. Department of State’s sport diplomacy stays the course
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In the first of a six-part series, the State Department's Sports Diplomacy office explains how it uses sport to promote disability rights and build connections between countries.

Trina Bolton, Sports Diplomacy Division, U.S. Department of State

In this age of COVID-19, the world faces unrivaled challenges from the individual to the international levels and sports are emblematic of the crisis’s broader effects in the lives of all. While the fields, courts, and stadiums have fallen silent or are being repurposed for public health priorities, a positive sports story emerges - one of solidarity, innovative support, resilience, and connectivity between people regardless of geographic distance or sociocultural differences. 
While 2020 will be remembered as a pivotal time in global history due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact, this year is also a celebration of momentous progress for disability rights in the United States. Thirty years ago, the United States enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the first national civil rights legislation banning discrimination against people with disabilities. 

Since then, the ADA—in tandem with other legislation—has led to the inclusion of people with disabilities in all areas of life including sports. While we still have hurdles to overcome in the United States, we know that inclusion is a win-win for everyone and seek changes so that people with disabilities enjoy a life of dignity and opportunity. 

In support of U.S. foreign policy, the U.S. Department of State works to remove barriers and create a world in which people with disabilities enjoy dignity and full inclusion.  Through our Sports Diplomacy Division’s work in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), we are spreading the lessons of the ADA with sports exchange participants from around the globe.    

This series of pieces will celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the ADA by exploring sports diplomacy at the U.S. Department of State with a focus on adaptive sports. While highlighting each of the Sports Diplomacy Division’s four exchange-based programs, these articles will feature perspectives from those on-the-field including: U.S. embassies and consulates, U.S.-based sport for good organizations, international delegates, and American Sports Envoys.       

We begin the series with an overview of the Sports Diplomacy Division at the U.S. Department of State and highlight some of our priorities in 2020.   

How and why does the U.S. Department of State support sports diplomacy?  

While the United States leveraged the power of sports even before the ping pong diplomacy era, the Sports Diplomacy Division—formerly SportsUnited—was established in the wake of 9/11 as a means of reaching out to youth in the Middle East through soccer. Housed in ECA, the Sports Diplomacy Division’s programs fulfill the mandate outlined in the Fulbright-Hays Act–to promote mutual understanding through shared educational and cultural interests for the promotion of friendly relations between the United States and other countries. Sports provide a unique avenue for the State Department to open doors in hard-to-reach places and engage communities at the grassroots and people-to-people level. 

When leveraged thoughtfully and strategically, sports serves as a platform for us to champion other foreign policy priorities—inclusion, youth empowerment, gender equality, health & wellness, conflict resolution, and entrepreneurism. 

The Sports Diplomacy Division has four primary program pillars – Sports Envoys, Sports Visitors, the International Sports Programming Initiative, and the Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP): the espnW GSMP to empower women and the Sport for Community GSMP on disability rights. Together these programs reach thousands of participants from all regions of the world while involving the full spectrum of sports.   

In coordination with other State Department bureaus, our Sports Diplomacy Division also contributes to special initiatives around mega-sporting events, sports and human rights, and sports policy with the mission of advancing democratic values, leveling the playing field for marginalized people, and promoting respect for diversity. 

To fulfill ECA’s mission, the Sports Diplomacy Division collaborates with U.S. Embassy and Consulates around the world to support program design, implementation, and follow-up.  Many of the Sports Diplomacy Division’s programs begin with a proposal from a U.S. Embassy or Consulate outlining Mission priorities and foreign policy objectives as well as the applicability of the sport, audience, and platform for achieving these goals.  U.S. Embassies and Consulates generally recruit, nominate, and select participants through various mechanisms.  In addition, U.S. Embassies and Consulates frequently spearhead their own sports diplomacy programming with local contacts and resources.    

What are the Sports Diplomacy Division’s priorities in 2020?  

As mentioned earlier, disability rights are a priority at the U.S. Department of State and our bureau strongly supports programs that share the global lessons of the ADA.  With the passage of the ADA thirty years ago, the United States became the first country in the world to adopt national civil rights legislation to ban discrimination against people with disabilities. We look forward to celebrating the ADA’s anniversary this July—something that will not be defeated by COVID-19. 

As another key ongoing theme, we emphasize that all of our ECA exchanges are a two-way street. American participants learn from the expertise of delegates and build professional and personal ties to these influential leaders overseas. We are enriched by new perspectives while developing friendships around the world and lasting partnerships. 

What’s up in the Sports Diplomacy Division’s immediate game plan? 

The COVID-19 global pandemic has inevitably altered everyday life for billions of people around the world. At the time of this writing in April 2020, our bureau has paused all ECA-sponsored exchange programs for 60 days, including our Sports Diplomacy exchanges. ECA views the health, safety, and well-being of program participants as its focus and will only resume programs after careful consideration.   

In the meantime, we have joined others in the sports community to adapt to the challenging global context. Working with cooperative partners at the University of Tennessee, we redesigned this spring’s Global Sports Mentoring Program: Sport for Community as a series of virtual group webinars, alumni peer “pen pal" sessions, and video tutorials on building adaptive sports equipment out of recycled materials safely inside.  Our Sports Diplomacy Division also looks forward to launching a “Get Fit” campaign. These virtual “Get Fit” interviews, workouts, and Q&A chats with Sports Envoys will be shared weekly on our social media platforms to highlight different foreign policy objectives. 



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