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A Rundown of Sports Diplomacy


Sports, over the years, have helped unite nation-states with opposing ideologies. Diplomacy through sports harnesses soft power in geopolitics. Major sporting events like the Dynamo Moscow Football Tour after WWII stands as a testament to two rival countries coming together to settle their indifferences through the means of sport. The ping-pong game between China and the US helped end two decades of animosity between Sino-US relations. In recent years, sports diplomacy has been used to promote legitimate means of peace and development infrastructure in countries while hosting major sporting events. A country with a strategy of sports diplomacy will benefit in economic development and will leave a positive impact.

The phenomenon of sports diplomacy has been at play for centuries since the dawn of civilization. Sports historically has always been a spectacle that unites states and people of all castes, creeds, religions and nationalities. Ancient Greek in 480 BC is said to have delayed war against the Persian army in the summer to conduct the Olympics.[1] The history of conducting sports tournaments can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization in 2500 – 1700 BC where hunting tools like bow and arrow, javelin, axe and daggers were used in the sports arenas.[2] In the great Indian mythologies Ramayana and Mahabharata, there have been mentions of chariot races and a form of swimming competitions between kingdoms.

Sports in ancient times were used to keep the body and health in shape. It slowly saw a behavioural paradigm shift when the sport was used to show valour and courage and also as a tool to represent one’s community. The rivalry within sports and games forms a sense of family among the supporters and competition among the opposition which is healthy for building relations and cultural exchanges among nation-states.

Sports diplomacy in modern times is an important soft power used in foreign policy, confidence-building measures, refugee integration and entrepreneurism. The policy of sports diplomacy benefitting relations among countries has many examples. The most important of them all is the Dynamo Moscow Football Tour to the United Kingdom in 1945.

Ancient Greek, in 480 BC, is said to have delayed war against the Persian army in the summer to conduct the Olympics. In Ramayana and Mahabharata, there have been mentions of chariot races and a form of swimming competitions between kingdoms.

Dynamo Moscow Football Tour

After WWII, England invited the Russian football team to tour Britain as a token of the camaraderie by the Allied victory.[3] The Dynamo Moscow football team toured Britain when the tensions between the Soviets and the United States were rising due to the United States refusing to pass on atomic information and the Soviet invasion of Eastern Europe.

The Football Association presenting a commemorative pennant to Dynamic Moscow after their successful Britain tour in 1945 | Source- BBC

English literary giant George Orwell called the Dynamo Moscow Football Tour “war minus the shooting”.[4] The Dynamo played against four UK football teams they won the match against Chelsea, Cardiff and Arsenal and drew 2-2 with the Rangers. The tour had a crowd attendance of tens of thousands to all of the matches who were excited to see this spectacle. The demand to watch the game was so high that ticket prices had gone up ten folds from 21 shillings to 10 euros in the Rangers game.

The aftermath of the Dynamo team visit to the UK didn’t really facilitate the relationship between the two countries but stands as a testament to two rival countries coming together to settle their indifferences through the means of sport.

Another good example of rival countries showing their sportsmanship is the famous table tennis match between the American team and the Chinese team popularly known as “ping-pong diplomacy”.

Also Read: Olympics and International Relations: Uncovering an Intertwined Relationship

Ping-Pong Diplomacy

Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, while describing ping-pong diplomacy, said – Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy.” [5]

Sino-US relations revived when China invited the American table tennis team to visit in 1971. The US saw this as an opportunity of gaining leverage against the Soviet Union. The ping-pong game was successful in establishing good relations between the US and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). US President Richard Nixon withdrew the embargo against China on June 10, 1971.[6]

Ping-pong diplomacy helped US-China thawing their relations | Source – China underground

This further led to President Nixon visiting China, ending two decades of animosity between the US-PRC relations. On the week-long trip, Nixon met Chairman Mao Zedong in Zhongnanhai on February 21, 1972, and on the same evening met with Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. The week-long trip facilitated China and the United States jointly issuing the “Joint Communique” in Shanghai which stated, “The United States recognizes that all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait believe that there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of China”.[7] To this day the strategic ambiguity of Taiwan is followed by the US.

After President Nixon’s visit, China’s table tennis team paid a return visit to the US on April 11, 1972, attracting worldwide attention. It has been 51 years since ping-pong diplomacy came to play, and to this day the name is associated synonymously with sports diplomacy.

Recent Trends in Sports Diplomacy

In recent years, sports diplomacy has been used to promote legitimate means of peace and development infrastructure in countries while hosting major sporting events. The 2014 FIFA World Cup in Rio de Janeiro created over 710,000 permanent jobs and the 2016 Rio Olympics created housing development, a metro line in the city and billions of dollars worth of infrastructure projects.[8]

Sports diplomacy in modern times is an important soft power used in foreign policy, confidence-building measures, refugee integration and entrepreneurism. It has also been used for peace and development infrastructure in countries while hosting major sporting events.

Also Read: The Political Nature of the Olympics: Protests, Boycotts and Violence at the Games

The US has a dedicated Department of State’s Sports Diplomacy Division housed in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs that engages in exchange outreach programmes and strategically uses sports diplomacy to frame its foreign policy. The Government of Australia has also interestingly come up with Sports Diplomacy Strategy where it has policies focusing on bilateral relations building linkages with neighbours and strengthening communities in the Indo-Pacific.

Sports as a means of diplomacy works tremendously in favour of enhancing soft power in geopolitics. A country with a strategy of sports diplomacy will benefit in economic development, have a positive impact on its citizens and will always be ahead compared to the rest of the world.


REFERENCES

  1. Welcome to the Ancient Olympic Games. (n.d.). International Olympic Committee. Retrieved November 24, 2022, from https://olympics.com/ioc/ancient-olympic-games
  2. KAUR, L. K., & CHANDER, R. (2019, October 25). ANCIENT INDIAN SPORTS A HISTORICAL ANALYSIS. BEST Journals. https://www.academia.edu/21815198/ANCIENT_INDIAN_SPORTS_A_HISTORICAL_ANALYSIS
  3. The Russians who came with a warning Britain wouldn’t hear. (2020d, November 13). BBC Sport. https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/54839305
  4. Ibid.
  5. Devoss, D. (2002, April 1). Ping-Pong Diplomacy. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/ping-pong-diplomacy-60307544/
  6. Damiani, M. (2022, April 22). 20+ Rare Pictures of the ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy.’ China Underground. https://china-underground.com/2018/05/20/20-rare-pictures-of-the-ping-ping-diplomacy/
  7. Joint Communiqué of the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America, August 17, 1982 | US-China Institute. (n.d.). https://china.usc.edu/joint-communiqu%C3%A9-peoples-republic-china-and-united-states-america-august-17-1982
  8. Forster, J. (2017, February 11). Peace Through Sports: An Introduction To Sports Diplomacy. The Organization for World Peace. https://theowp.org/reports/peace-through-sports-an-introduction-to-sports-diplomacy/

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About the author

Dhanya D is a research officer at the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Her research work focuses on “Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugees: An Analysis of a Humanitarian Crisis”. Her areas of interest include Refugee studies, Geopolitics and Peace and Conflict studies.


Dhanya D

Dhanya D is a research officer at the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Her research work focuses on “Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugees: An Analysis of a Humanitarian Crisis”. Her areas of interest include Refugee studies, Geopolitics and Peace and Conflict studies.

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