Monday, September 18, 2017

Sport – a useful tool of diplomacy

(Photo: Flickr amsr1)

The present geopolitical situation is significantly tense due to nuclear tests of North Korea. Even though, latest events on the Korean peninsula are topic number one at the United Nations Security Council, there is still a small chance of improving this issue via sport diplomacy. A few weeks ago, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, said that North Korea will be given time to decide whether it will take part at the Winter Olympics 2018 in South Korea’s Pyongchang or not. What is more, North Korea could be involved at the forthcoming Olympic Games although its athletes would not have met the qualification standards. Isn't it captivating that in such these comprehensive political standoffs could sport be the potential solution?

Do not be surprised – term sport diplomacy does not have any codified or comprehensive definition therefore it is hard to clearly categorize it. It is often seen as part of public or cultural diplomacy but equating them would deprive sport diplomacy of its distinct ways and peculiarities. From a political point of view, sport diplomacy can be understood as managed and targeted communication in cases where interested parties are willing to solve international problems of a political nature through sport.

What’s fascinating about sport diplomacy is that factors such as the state regime or establishment are often receded into the background. Sport visibly affects opinions on individual states in the world. In many cases, sport is apolitical force through which actors try to influence international relations.
There are several concrete examples when sport diplomacy improved relations between the states that had conflict. In 1971, "Ping-pong diplomacy" noticeably improved relations between the United States of America and China. In this case, table tennis became a starting lane for the beginning of the establishment of diplomatic relations between two mentioned states with utterly different political administrations. At that time, few months earlier, this would have been seen as infeasible. Another example is "Hockey diplomacy." This term reflects series of 8 ice hockey matches between Canada and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in year 1972, during the Cold War. Again, relations between two states with different political regimes were improved. In 2011, relations between Pakistan and India were eased also through the "Cricket diplomacy" which improved the bilateral geopolitical relations.

The examples of sport diplomacy in practical terms are also can be seen at the Olympic Games, during which politically divided nations have been marching under one Olympic flag. These were the cases of the United Team of Germany at the opening ceremonies of the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Rome (1960) and Tokyo (1964). Another example occurred at the Olympic Games in Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004, where teams from North and South Korea also presented themselves at the opening ceremony under the Korean Unification Flag.

In case of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) created the 10-member Refugee Olympic Team with the same status as all other National Olympic Committees. The goal of the IOC was to deliver universal message of raising the awareness of refugees in need. This was a demonstration of how sport can be used to spread human values and solidarity in society. If sport is used in the right way it can create social inclusion and ease the tension in many international situations.
Sport and politics are also mixed together. In February this year, there was the battle of leadership in the Conservative Party of Canada. During one televised debate in Edmonton (Alberta), only one amongst other thirteen candidates Rick Peterson, has been wearing ice hockey jersey with number 97 of the NHL team Edmonton Oilers. Originally it´s a jersey worn by young Canadian ice hockey star Connor McDavid. This was meant to help bring sympathies of audience and potential votes to this candidate by effort to associate himself with admired ice hockey player.

Unfortunately, link between politics and sport had also negative connotations throughout the history. Politics have been seen as either interfering with sport or as a cover-up for the political situation in the country.
In 1978, the football World Cup was held in Argentina. Although Argentinians won the whole tournament for the first time, it did not musk the severe reality of then social situation. Outside the football pitches, the military government (junta), was set up and had been causing brutal reprisals against the political and human rights.

Aside from disgusting abuse of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin by Hitler's Nazi propaganda, there are more examples of how sport and politics were linked together during the Olympic Games. An illustration of this were events where the U. S. government has forced National Olympic Committee of the USA to boycott 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Subsequently, the same decision was made by government of Soviet Union four years later – the boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles was declared. The real reason of boycotts was the political tension typical for Cold War bipolar world.

This summer, Hungary hosted the World Judo Championships and the International Swimming Federation championships and also tried to apply for hosting 2024 Olympic Games (the bid was later withdrawn). "Apart from the FIFA World Cup, which is another matter, there’s no major world event that is beyond Budapest’s capabilities," Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said. By year 2020, the government of Hungary will have invested quite large amounts of money for sport infrastructure (building or renovation of more than 30 football stadiums). But all magic comes with a price, in this case – the cost of approximately €709 million. Not all Hungarians share enthusiasm for spending on sport projects though and such this spending see as burden to economy. In general, engagement of the state´s government through the sport for its ambition to shaping its international recognition is perceived variously.

The matter of fact is that sport is the social phenomenon and also universal language which the whole global society is speaking with. Even against differences which are present in society, sport has a potential to solve complex problems which cross the border of one state. Complicated language of politicians and diplomats can be easily misunderstood but the feelings of victory achieved in winning match are universal and well known to almost everybody.

From what has been written I would like to make two conclusions – A single football match itself will not provide world peace. But sport can be a stepping-stone or catalyst for building the meaningful political dialogue or even for the establishment of diplomatic relations between states, where politics failed.

Mário Kvanka
GLOBSEC Policy Institute

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