Sports diplomacy as an untapped source of globalised integration

By Stuart Murray

Sports News

Diplomacy today is much more than a rarefied, exclusive and secret dialogue between states. Governments the world over are experimenting with innovative types of public engagement such as cultural, digital and public diplomacy. These new, democratised types of diplomacy create fluid, plural and diverse networks of state and non-state actors, generate win-win scenarios via complementary partnerships, and temper the disintegration agenda. This briefing paper describes a ‘new’ dynamic type of diplomacy that is rapidly growing in theory and practice: sports diplomacy.

Framing sports diplomacy: from the ‘old’ to Version 2.0

Like it or loathe it, sport, politics and international relations have mixed since time immemorial. The Ancient Olympiad, the 1520 Field of Cloth of Gold Summit, or, more recently, the respective Olympic boycotts by the U.S. and Soviet nations during the 1980s, are well known examples. Much of this history and practice was, however, characterised by elite state actors co-opting elite sport, sports people and sporting events to advance or augment traditional foreign policy ends. Ping-pong diplomacy, the use of sport as part of the boycott against Apartheid South Africa, or the intermittent episodes of ‘baseball diplomacy’ between the U.S. and Cuba, were little more than ‘the continuation of policy by other means’, to adapt Clausewitz. As such, traditional sports diplomacy was sporadic, opportunistic, clumsy and imbued with tactless jingoistic pageantry; ‘war minus the shooting’, in the words of George Orwell.

This type of sports diplomacy endures, for international sport is often a parody of international relations, however, in the epoch of globalisation it is being supplanted by a new form of sports diplomacy, a version 2.0, if you like.

Sports diplomacy, Ver 2.0: definitions and practical examples

‘New’ sports diplomacy is a far more inclusive, amateur and networked model that embodies the type of state, non-state and public partnerships characteristic of twenty-first century diplomacy. It can be specifically defined as the conscious, strategic and regular use of sport, sportspeople and sporting events by state and non-state actors to engage, inform and create a favourable image among foreign publics and organisations, to shape their perceptions in a way that is (more) conducive to the sending group’s desired goals.

Often, a government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) acts as the hub in a diverse network composed of national sporting bodies, civil society organisations, multinational sporting businesses, and, even, influential celebrity sports diplomacy. The purpose of the MFA is somewhat retrospective: to act as a sporting ‘gatekeeper’, and to produce a whole-of-government sports diplomacy strategy that enhances a nation’s soft power image, reputation and partnerships (both domestically and internationally). Such networks can significantly boost people-to-people links, education, development, cultural, trade, investment or tourism opportunities, for example.

Many governments are developing (or refining) esoteric sports diplomacy programs, policies and strategies. Due to their love of both innovation and sport, the Americans and their U.S. Department of State’s were the first nation to take sports diplomacy more seriously. Their vanguard initiative is the Sports United programme, which was born after 9/11 as a way of engaging young, disenfranchised people across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. India and Pakistani leaders regularly engage in ‘cricket-diplomacy’ as a way of diffusing tensions over terrorist attacks, nuclear brinkmanship, and trade disputes, and there is much activity in the Asia-Pacific region as the governments of the Republic of Korea (2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics), Japan (2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Summer Olympic Games), and China (Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and the ongoing Football Revolution) are all seeking to engage and charm global publics numbering in the billions.

However, it is the Australian’s and their Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) that are arguably leading the race. In 2015, DFAT launched the world’s first, esoteric, whole-of-government Sports Diplomacy Strategy (2015-2018). It sought to provide a dedicated point of contact, a portal, for absolutely anyone – players, coaches, sponsors, administrators, diplomats and politicians at home or abroad – with a stake and interest in Australian sport.

As Foreign Minister Julie Bishop noted at the launch, the Strategy

“signals a new era of partnership between the Australian Government and sporting organisations. Together, we will leverage our outstanding sports skills, facilities and knowledge to promote Australia and strengthen our links with countries and communities in the region.”

Where the Americans, Australians and Asian nations lead, other nations will surely follow, particularly those where sport forms a core part of their society, values and culture. Cuba, Canada, and New Zealand are all working on similar sports diplomacy strategies, as are the British, French and Italian governments, although these programmes are rather poor compared to those described above. This attitude is difficult to fathom because these nations are sitting on top of a veritable sports diplomacy goldmine.

Why sports diplomacy now?

Iran’s Fatemeh Khalaji (right) challenges Turkey’s Kubra Aydin for the ball in the Turkey versus Iran girls’ preliminary football match of the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games (YOG) played at the Jalan Besar Stadium, August 12, 2010. Turkey won the match 4-2. Photo: SPH-SYOGOC/Chong Jun Liang

All the nations described above are using sport as a relatively cheap means of improving their image, credibility, stature, economic competitiveness and (they hope) ability to exercise agency on the international stage. The reason behind such growth in practice of sports diplomacy is simple: sport, like music or art, is a universal language that effortlessly overcomes estrangement between so-called disparate peoples, nations and states.

Everyone – from the Inuit to the Somalians and Scottish – all speak this language, for it literally woven into the human DNA (as evolutionary anthropological studies have proven). Sport endures as a powerful diplomatic tool that can sublimate conflict, promote comity between old and new enemies, break down stereotypes and stimulate more tolerant attitudes. Working in tandem with traditional diplomacy, sport is therefore no longer a niche area ‘below’ government but an increasingly relevant soft power tool for modern diplomacy. The ‘sportscape’, to use Manzenreiter’s term, is truly global, generates trillions of dollars, and affects billions of fans, players and coaches.

Embedding sport as a regular, conscious and proactive tool in a state’s diplomatic arsenal is beneficial for many other reasons: it can transcend acrimony in diplomatic relationships, bring ‘estranged’ leaders together, offer informal pathways beyond staid, formal venues of diplomacy, generate massive public diplomacy opportunities, amplify a state’s diplomatic message, culture and values, and unite so-called disparate nations, states and people via a mutual love of pursuits centred on physical exercise.

Part of the attraction in using sport as a form of diplomacy is also practical – it is low-risk, low-cost and high profile. And, by experimenting with new means to old ends, the culture of a state’s diplomacy can change from aloof, hermetic and ‘dead’ to one that is advanced, innovative, very public and even fun. Sports diplomacy also dovetails neatly with other new forms of diplomacy, chiefly public and digital diplomacy (the latter being the use of digital media platforms to exponentially increase the number of recipients for a diplomatic message). And, finally, sports diplomacy is difficult to object to? After all, who can be against sport, or diplomacy?

The final whistle

History demonstrates that both sport and diplomacy are powerful civil, civilising and civilised institutions. They are not, however, perfect. Classical, traditional diplomacy remains a complex, zero-sum game loaded with cabal, intrigue and secrecy. This is, however, the nature of a competitive, anarchic international relations system dominated by retrospective, Westphalian states obsessed with survival, by any means possible. Sport too has its issues. The observer need only think of FIFA under the extraordinarily unethical tenures of Presidents Havelange or Blatter, the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics bidding scandal, or, more recently, the 2016 World Anti-Doping Agency report that accused more than 1,000 Russian Athletes of ‘benefitting’ from state-sponsored doping. Sadly, international sport continues to be associated with graft, violence, and cheating.

Just as sport can bring people together, it can also drive them apart. But, transgressions from ideal of diplomacy and sport are the exception rather than the rule. In other words, both sport and diplomacy do far more good for international society than harm.

Compared to some of the major issues in twenty-first century international relations– terrorism, poverty and climate change, to name but a few – sports diplomacy is a generally positive phenomenon. Granted, many states will continue to use sport to further self-serving national interests and foreign policy goals, however it is important to remember the core, diplomatic components of sports diplomacy: to overcome separation between separate peoples, nations and states, to generate mutually reciprocal ‘soft’ outcomes, and to reduce misunderstandings between ‘them’ and ‘us’ by demonstrating strangers speak a shared, universal language of sport. For the most part, sports diplomacy fosters peace, comity and unity.

From the ping-pong tables of Beijing to the front row of the Estadio Latinoamericano where Barrack Obama, the first US President to visit Havana since Calvin Coolidge in 1928, and Cuba President Raul Castro, watched a few innings of a friendly baseball match between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team, sports diplomacy continues to demonstrate significant potential to bring nations, leaders and people together.

More and more states are implementing sports diplomacy 2.0 programs and, as such, its short-term future looks assured. In an age sullied by disintegration, parochial xenophobes, global terrorism, financial crises, overpopulation and resource scarcity, sporting exchanges and innovative diplomacy between nations, states and people should be fostered and encouraged. Sports diplomacy is one of the genuine success stories of the globalised era.

Recommendations for governments

For those nations that have not yet considered a sports diplomacy strategy or policy, the following considerations might pay dividends:

– Ensure a working group composed of theorists, practitioners and experts from both the realms of sport and government is formed.
– The question guiding initial discussions could be “what role has, does and should sport play in our diplomacy, foreign policy and international image, reputation and brand?”
– It is also important not to confuse sports diplomacy with public diplomacy (or, indeed, to hierarchically disaggregate sport as part of a broader public diplomacy strategy).
– A rich and passionate repository of expertise, funding, experience and partnership is to be found in the non-state sporting sector. Strive for reciprocity: governments get access to extant sporting networks, while non-state sporting actors gain a legitimacy and credibility as a state-partner.
– Related, many non-state sporting actors are already agents, symbols and architects of globalisation. Sporting brands and icons such as Adidas, Nike and Body Armour, or Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, and Sebastien Vettel, or clubs and teams like F.C. Barcelona, F.C. Bayern Munich, or Manchester Utd (which claims to have global fanbase numbering 650 million), are all good examples of established, global resources that are often glad to work with the state.
– Sports diplomacy works just as well in domestic, intra-state contexts as it does in inter-national environments. The Australian government, for example, uses sport to overcome systemic estrangement with the indigenous First Australians, the Papua New Guinean female Rugby League team are powerful ambassadors for women’s rights within one of the most patriarchal societies on the planet, and, many European football teams serve as valuable sporting ambassadors in overcoming social problems created by recent waves of mass immigration.

Stuart Murray (@Diplomacy102) is an Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations at Bond University, Queensland, Australia, an associate editor for the Diplomacy and Foreign Policy journal (Brill), and a Global Fellow at The Academy of Sport, Edinburgh University. He has written widely on ‘innovative’ diplomacies, is a member of a group of academics from around the world devoted to advancing sports diplomacy research, and has consulted and advised several governments and non-state sporting actors on sports diplomacy policy design, implementation and review. He also still plays football, badly.

smurray@bond.edu.au ; Twitter – @Diplomacy102

Selected references

AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT. 2015. Australian Sports Diplomacy Strategy 2015-18. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

Dichter, Heather L. and Johns, Andrew L. Johns (eds). 2014. Diplomatic Games: Sport, Statecraft, and International Relations since 1945. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky,

Grix, Jon and Donna Lee. 2013. “Soft Power, Sports Mega-events and Emerging States: The Lure of the Politics of Attraction”. Global Society 27(4): 521-536.

Jarvie, Grant, Murray Stuart and MacDonald Stuart. 2017″. Promoting Scotland, Diplomacy and influence through Sport”. Scottish Affairs 26 (1): 1-22.

Murray, S. (2016). Sports diplomacy. In Costas Constantinou, Pauline Kerr and Paul Sharp (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Diplomacy (pp. 617- 627). London: SAGE.

Murray, S. (2017). “Sports Diplomacy in the Australian Context: Theory into Strategy”.  Politics & Policy 45 (5): 1-21.

Pamment, James. 2016. “Rethinking Diplomatic and Development Outcomes through Sport: Toward a Participatory Paradigm of Multi-Stakeholder Diplomacy”. Diplomacy & Statecraft 27(2): 231-250.

Rofe, J. Simon. 2016. “Sport and Diplomacy: A Global Diplomacy Framework”. Diplomacy & Statecraft 27(2): 212-230.

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