Peace Through Sports: An Introduction To Sports Diplomacy

Sports diplomacy is not a new practice and since ancient times, sporting events have been used as a vehicle for political goals. The Ancient Olympics in Greece, for example, allowed for dialogue, discussion, and peace between city-states that were otherwise continuously at war. However, since those times, the aims and implementation of sports diplomacy have changed to accommodate the political climate of the times. Throughout the twentieth century, sports diplomacy held an ideological approach particularly with regards to reconciling democratic and communist approaches to governance after World War II. The Dynamo Moscow football tour to the United Kingdom in 1945 epitomizes this form of sports diplomacy as both states sought closer ties after the conclusion of the war. Today, though, sports diplomacy aims to promote development in states through infrastructure projects, as well as providing a platform for cultural exchange, which is facilitated through education and exchange programs. At the second Hague Conference of Diplomacy in 2009, the former US ambassador to Denmark Jim Cain remarked that “Sports can be a powerful medium to reach out and build relationships… across cultural and ethnic divides, with a positive message of shared values: values such as mutual respect, tolerance, compassion, discipline, equality of opportunity and the rule of law. In many ways, sports can be a more effective foreign policy resource than the carrot or the stick.”

The use of sports to promote peace and interaction between states has transitioned to become a formal diplomatic tool over recent years and is now treated as an official and legitimate form of facilitating peace and development.

Sports diplomacy in the last twenty years has undergone a revolution with its main focus turning to infrastructure and development goals through the hosting of international sporting events. In fact, one of the major reasons to host an international sporting event includes the attached development opportunities for the host city. Transport infrastructure, housing development, and sports facilities are some of the benefits for the city while local business owners receive a boost that comes with the influx of tourists that descend upon the city. For example, in 2014, FIFA declared that the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro created approximately one million jobs, of which 710,000 were permanent. Coupled with the 2016 Olympics in the same city, billions of dollars worth of infrastructure projects, including new roads and highways, a metro line in the city and housing development helped to invigorate the city and provided substantial and lasting improvements. While it has not solved all of Rio de Janeiro’s problems, the development outcomes have helped the city invest in development projects to help meet its demands into the future. It must be said that rapid investment in infrastructure does have downsides, however, with reports since having seen rises in income inequality within the city of Rio de Janeiro for one. However, as the effects of mega-event hosting are being further studied and the normalization of sports diplomacy continues to take effect, adjustments can be made to ensure this does not occur in future events, such as the 2018 Beijing Olympics or the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup.

However, large events are not the only way in which sports diplomacy can be a valuable development tool. In 2015, the Australian government released a document called ‘Australian Sports Diplomacy Strategy 2015-18,’ which details a bilateral approach to sports diplomacy and a focus on the Indo-Pacific region. The stated goals of this strategy include improving people-to-people connections through programs, such as Sports Exchange Australia. This program, according to the document, allows sports officials, coaches, administrators, and athletes to “foster reciprocal links and promote partnerships between regional and national organizations and sports industry bodies.” This exchange of values and culture between people is ultimately what fuels lasting peace and understanding between countries. It also helps to garner support for political alliances, which adds to further stabilizing peace and steers countries clear of conflict.

Other goals of the sports diplomacy program include enhancing sport for development, showcasing Australia through sporting events, and supporting innovation and technology. This approach has led to positive diplomatic results for both Australia and its diplomatic partners. Pacific Island countries, in particular, are active participants in the cultural and development exchange programs, which have made progress on issues, such as equality for women in society, health, domestic violence, and improving lives for people with disability. Australian sports, as a result, has seen an influx in the number of Pacific Island players in professional sports leagues, such as the National Rugby League, Australian Football League, and their Super Rugby franchises. This has also contributed in facilitating cultural exchange between countries. In return for their investment, Australian citizens participate in the exchange and a reputation of goodwill is built in the participating countries, which fosters peace and development in the process.

However, there have been recent examples of the more old-school, ideological version of sports diplomacy. For example, in 2016 when Barack Obama visited Cuba, he and President Raul Castro attended a baseball game between the Major League Baseball team, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Cuban National Team. This was organized, particularly, because the two countries do not share a system of government. The baseball game demonstrated to the public that while political roadblocks between the two nations exist, both parties and governments were able to put aside their differences and establish common ground around their love for baseball. Sports diplomacy was particularly effective in this instance as the governments of Cuba and the United States do not share all of the same values. However, this notion of goodwill created through attending the game also demonstrated to the public that the political differences between the two leaders could be overcome and unnecessary conflict could be avoided.

The future of sports diplomacy and its role in fostering peace and cultural exchange looks to be bright. Though the links between sports and politics have long been established, they look set to grow closer together in the future as the practice of sports diplomacy becomes normalized and accepted as a legitimate and powerful tool for peace. Countries, such as Australia are leading the way in this regard with an official government strategy on its sports diplomacy goals for the next four years. From the hosting of mega-events to sporting exchange programs to sharing values through sports, the opportunity is there for states to use these avenues to promote peace and civility over conflict and divisiveness. As sports diplomacy comes of age as a tool to do just that, one can only hope that the advantage is taken.