Sport can break diplomatic deadlock, stimulate globalization and change the international position of nations.
by Ahaan Jindal
| 11/14/23 4:00 a.m.
Imagine the following: you are a spectator of the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece in 776 BC. The spectacle of events like running, wrestling and chariot races is unlike anything anyone has ever seen before. However, the Olympics are about more than a scintillating display of physical skill, mental courage and strength; it was designed to foster a peaceful environment, preventing war between city-states. Since then, sport has evolved considerably, but one thing that has remained constant is its ability to accelerate the establishment of diplomatic relations, lift people and nations out of impoverishment and strengthen multilateral relations.
“Sports diplomacy” has only grown since the years of the ancient Olympic Games, with both countries and international organizations such as the UN deploying it as a method of peace mediation. The most prominent example is the “ping-pong diplomacy” led by the United States in the 1970s, which helped normalize relations between the United States and China during the Cold War.
It started when nine American table tennis players were invited to China for a visit. This proved the only channel for diplomatic relations between two nations previously at odds due to strong ideological and political differences, with Nixon being the first US president to visit China after 23 years in 1972. Relations improved significantly : embargoes were lifted, tensions eased and, above all, the two countries adopted the Shanghai Communiqué of 1979, which formalized their diplomatic relations and affirmed their support for disarmament.
Sporting events also tend to prevent tensions from escalating into violent conflict. In 1987, border tensions between India and Pakistan increased due to military exercises conducted near the Wagah border. Political pressures also threatened to boil over, given the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In an attempt to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi invited Pakistani Prime Minister Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq to a test match in Jaipur. That visit culminated with a dinner the same day, which reportedly resulted in a successful negotiation between the two leaders for a reduction in border troops, thereby cooling a potentially dangerous flare-up in tensions.
Beyond international diplomacy, sport has the potential to foster a shared collective identity. A notable example occurred in the 1990s, when North Yemen and South Yemen existed as separate states. Cross-border football matches have played a crucial role in strengthening the idea of a unified Yemen. Nicknamed “soccer diplomacy,” this practice subsequently popularized the idea of a united Yemen in the public eye (albeit for a few years). The humanitarian benefit of sport is also notable, particularly in the context of non-state actor programs aimed at bringing aid and peace to war-torn areas.
Sports can also result in the rise of nations, as they can be used as a measure to increase national attractiveness, facilitate national rebranding and thus enhance global reputation. Indeed, the apparent “heritage value” of sport, or the value people place on culture and traditions, is extremely high.
Take the example of Qatar – a Middle Eastern country smaller than Connecticut that wants to change its reputation as a petrostate – and which hosted last year’s FIFA World Cup. Like its neighbors, Qatar has suffered from “Dutch disease”, an economic phenomenon characterized by over-reliance on a few limited sources of income, and has therefore begun to invest in alternative means of economic growth. Qatar’s organization of the World Cup thus offered the country a whole series of interesting prospects, such as the influx of 1.5 million tourists from 95 countries. After the World Cup, Qatar also began diversifying its supply chains away from Saudi Arabia and neighboring Gulf countries and toward countries like Turkey and Germany.
Interestingly, Nelson Mandela harnessed the power of sport, particularly rugby, to help unify South Africa in the twilight of the apartheid era. In 1995, Mandela saw the Rugby World Cup hosted in South Africa as an opportunity to break down racial barriers, symbolically wearing a Springbok jersey, traditionally associated with the white Afrikaner community, to send a powerful message about inclusiveness. This feeling was only amplified by the Springboks’ final victory in the World Cup. These events helped rehabilitate South Africa’s global image, showing that it had begun to overcome its apartheid past. Many scholars, including neoliberal visionary Joseph Nye himself, believe that sport has helped developing countries show the West an alternative and improved perception of themselves.
The next time you turn on ESPN, remember that the game you’re watching could be part of the complex, multifaceted and fascinating game of international relations and diplomacy. Sport unites and globalizes fragmented nations, cultures and peoples. In doing so, sport constitutes a means of inspiration to promote a more collaborative and inclusive international configuration.
Opinion articles represent the opinions of the author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.