Sport making the art of the possible-possible?

Can sport make the art of the possible - possible?

Can sport make the art of the possible – possible?

Sport has a role to play in making the art of the possible, possible.

On June 2nd 2015 the New York Cosmos beat Cuba 4-1 in a friendly soccer match. The match symbolised a new era of foreign relations between the United States and Cuba.

Raul, the former Real Madrid and Mexican star who played for the Cosmos commented that “It was an honor to play against the Cuban national team,” Raul said. “They have a talented team and we felt it was a very good game. Football brings people together and we saw it today.”

The match  was part of a broader range of interventions that have attempted to draw a line under five decades of estrangement.


  • 2nd June the USA and Cuba resume sporting relations
  • 1969 Pele compared Tuesday’s intervention to that of the Brazilian side Santos visiting Nigeria in 1969
  • 1978 the last time a US soccer team had played in Cuba
  • 1999 Baltimore Orioles (baseball) played in Cuba and in May (2015) Havana announced that the baseball team would return later in the year
  • 1999 Cuba had 1 physical education teacher per 458 inhabitants
  • In terms of soft power sport Cuba has used sport for utilitarian and ideological purposes including the promotion of national prestige, health, defence, labour productivity, and integration.
  • 2014 -215 Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro pledged full restoration of ties on 17 December. The two leaders met in Panama in mid-April
  • 2015 Cuba completed the release of 53 political prisoners
  • 2015 Cuba, in May, was formally removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, a critical step toward rapprochement 54 years after Washington cut off relations at the height of the cold war and imposed an economic embargo
  • At June 4th the FIFA World Rankings for Men and Women saw the USA ranked at 27 (Men) and 2 (Women) and Cuba 107 (Men) and 96 (Women).

Some analysts warn that as the two countries move to re- open embassies, the Republicans still pose a potential hurdle in the agreement to end more than 50 years of hostility.


 It is more than 50 years since Chataway and Goodhart produced their account of international sport in A War without Weapons (1968).

Victor Cha, the former Director of Asian Affairs for the White House, in Beyond the Final Score (2009) has penned one of the few inside accounts of sporting diplomacy and argued that:

  • Sport matters because it can provide opportunities for interventions
  • Sport matters because it can be less aloof than some forms of diplomacy

The UK House of Lords report on Persuasion and Power in the Modern World (2014), pointed to the necessity of balancing hard and soft power tactics and the role that sport could play.

Grix et al (2015) have interrogated the way in which some countries have utilized sport as part of a soft power strategy.

Hard and soft power is often seen to be  what one country does to another. International cultural relations can potentially go well beyond this because of the emphasis on mutuality.

There is a plethora of research from which politicians, civil servants and sports administrators can learn.

Sport matters because it has (i) universal appeal that crosses language and cultural barriers; (ii) the capacity to develop temporary feel good factors; (iii) the ability to foster conversations between countries that take place around sporting events and the capacity to develop some human capabilities.

BUT we need to know in a much more nuanced way what works and what does not work.


If  sport can make the art of the possible, possible and we should exploit it to the full. It provides a potential space around which other resources can be brought into play. It is not a solution in and of itself.

 It is not as if the world has its problems to seek. What is new is the contexts in which we live today and what tools we have to resolve these problems and issues.

The world economic forum identified the top four international trends are worsening income inequality; unemployment; rising geo-strategic competition, and intensifying nationalism. Additional concerns included rising population levels; weakening of democracy; climatic change, health and increasing water stress.

 With each world problem there is a temptation to simplify matters, find a quick solution, identify, sometimes wrongly, aggressors, transgressors and or victims.

But humanity like power politics is not that simple. The issues we must confront, while imposing in their scale are expansive in their reach, must be faced with fortitude and with a co-operative, collaborative spirit.

Consequently foreign diplomats, ambassadors, civil servants, cultural agencies, communities and countries need to have a wide variety of tools at their disposal.

Why would you not use anything if it can be evidenced that it can make a contribution?

Sport should be one of these tools. We need to take advantage of sports’ global currency, and further the part that sport can play in winning friends for countries.

We need to find an effective framework, language, set of principles through which international cultural relations can and should operate through sport and other facets of culture.

To forge long standing meaningful international cultural relations issues of mutuality, reciprocity, trust and co-operation have to be further enabled.

 The role played by non-state institutions and agencies working below the level of government is crucial.

Sport has a role to play in making the art of the possible, possible. Making sports policy, sports investment, sports research, sports advocacy, commitment, alignment, and the power of universities and civil society working for people, places and communities.


As a policy tool sport has a long history of opening doors for countries. It is a tool that foreign diplomats and civil servants should not forget but they need to understand in a more nuanced way what works where and when and under what circumstances.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *