The Power of Sports Diplomacy

Sports diplomacy is a proven tool for dialogue and could be a game changer for Russia-U.S. relations.

In the past century, sports and athletics have taken on an unprecedented role in facilitating global politics and affairs. In its original form, sport is a ritual of entertainment, a display of athleticism, and a mark of physical ability. But in the 20th and 21st century, sport has taken on the role of transcending national, cultural, and political notions across the globe— essentially qualifying it a method of diplomacy. Sports diplomacy not only has the potential of spreading values, but it also is a useful technique of establishing communication across cultures and serves as a liaison for human relationships. Many countries, including the United States who even deploy a Sports Diplomacy division within the State Department, have pushed sport diplomacy initiatives due to its demonstrated impact it has on international relations and forming relationships with other countries.

The act of sports diplomacy is especially manifested in global athletic competitions, including the Olympic Games or in the FIFA World Cup, where a wide variety of countries congregate on the grounds of the host nation. It should be no surprise that governments firmly push for a selection bid for mega sporting events. Economic benefits aside, competitions of such large global magnitude have substantial political implications, allowing nations to showcase their soft power and level of development positively.

Sports diplomacy is a proficient method to build peaceful associations between countries and foster relationships among the global community. Here are some of the most prominent examples.

Successful Examples

2018 Winter Olympics — PyeongChang, South Korea

Apart from the headlines that featured the positive sustainability and environmental features of PyeongChang's 2018 Winter Olympics, the games were not only symbolic, but it carried a degree of diplomatic significance between South Korea and North Korea. As athletes from the two countries entered the Olympic stadium during opening ceremonies, a flag of Korean Unification appeared and was presented to global audiences. While mostly symbolic, the act provided a sigh of relief in high tensions between the North and South. This gesture also occurred at a crucial juncture in strains— concerns of North Korea's nuclear missile program was mounting rapidly in 2018 throughout the international community. Under the confines of this mega-sporting event, the act carried out by South and North Korean athletes eased pressures in the Korean peninsula and, overall, created a more secure global environment.

1971 U.S.-China Ping-Pong Match

In what became known as "Ping-Pong Diplomacy," the opening of relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China after 20 years of no dialogue was achieved through the game of ping-pong. In April of 1971, communist China invited the American table tennis team to an all-expense-paid visit to their country and to play exhibition matches with the Chinese team. The U.S. ping-pong athletes were the first group of Americans allowed into the PRC since 1949, and its impact was immense. Just a year later, in 1962, President Richard Nixon visited China, where he met with Chinese leaders and ultimately pledged to normalize relations between the U.S. and China, represented through the Shanghai Communique.

2018 FIFA World Cup, Russia

Amid severe economic sanctions imposed by the EU and the United States, low standing in the international community, and the onslaught of Western media that tainted perceptions, Russia funneled an estimated $11.6 billion into creating a welcoming and prosperous World Cup. The athletic event served as an essential diplomatic effort to expose visiting countries and foreign audiences to Russia's culture, infrastructure, and various traditions— aka. "soft power." As the Russian National Team stunningly reached the quarterfinals before falling to Croatia in penalties, global audiences were captivated by Russia's impressive soft power ability and the warm hospitality foreign visitors and teams received.

The 1990 German world champion and football legend, Lothar Matthaus, even spoke with President Putin, mentioning that Russia managed to organize one of the best World Cups in recent times. While it's unfortunate that a multitude of Western countries stubbornly rejected Russia's profound display of culture and cordiality in the 2018 World Cup, it's evident that the deployment of sports diplomacy by Russia overturned the majority of misperceptions about the country and can be disposed of as an essential tool to building peace in the future.

Sports Diplomacy as an Avenue to Improving Russia-U.S. Relations

Sports diplomacy is a proven tool of dialogue and stimulus to spread national identities across the globe. The diplomatic tactic cannot be disregarded even with the highly competitive record between American and Russian athletics. This controversial athletic history can be highlighted by the 1972 encounter between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the Olympic men's basketball final, resulting in the U.S. refusing to accept their silver medals after a clock controversy. Just eight years later, in 1980, U.S-Russian competition can be characterized by the "Miracle on Ice" Winter Olympic hockey game in which the U.S. upset the Soviet Union to win gold.

The United States can take note of past sport diplomacy actions, such as "ping-pong diplomacy," in which the U.S. was able to interact with Cold War foes. Taking sport diplomacy successes as mentioned and applying similar strategies to the current state of affairs with the Russian Federation could pay massive dividends for the U.S. Given the rich athletic excellence between both countries, sports could unquestionably have the impact of building a constructive dialogue and connection between the U.S. and Russia's unacquainted cultures. While it may take a handful of years to deploy this method, both countries' leaders and policymakers must notice the power of sports diplomacy and how it could transcend U.S.-Russian relations.

Sam Schilling is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC), where he focuses on Russia-U.S. relations, post-Cold War security structures, and NATO’s role in Europe.