A common language that we all speak
Sport has the reputation to bring together nations in a peaceful setting, which has its roots in the Olympic Truce of ancient Greece. Every for years for the weeks of the games a truce would be called, enabling to enable the athletes to get the athletes to the games safely to that than inter-city hostilities could be resolved though sports competition rather than by force. However while some argue that sports competitions could be used as proxies to resolve hostilities and therefore to reduce the likelihood of armed international conflict, it could also be argued that the emphasis on competition among states that already have tense relations could enhance hostile feelings towards each other. The paper ‘Sports-Diplomacy: a hybrid of two halves’ (while not denying its potential to do good) gives a detailed overview about the negative effects that mixing diplomacy and sports can have.
While it is questionable wether sports can directly resolve international conflicts by taking them to the football field or track, or if it has the power to directly influence foreign policy sports transcends cultural differences and brings together people, it therefore has great potential to facilitate cultural exchange and to promote international understanding. As Ban Ki-moon said “sport is a language everyone of us can speak.” Sport has great potential as a tool of public and cultural diplomacy (for example in the form of sports exchanges), to enhance the image of a country (by successfully hosting a major sports event, like the Olympics or the Fifa World Cup) and to bring together states that have otherwise tense relations with each other.
One of the most famous examples of sports-diplomacy is the visit of the US table tennis team to China in 1971. While first proposed by the not-for profit National Comitee on USA-China Relations, it was embraced by Mao and Nixon as a means to test how the public would receive a rapprochement. Another famous example is the cricket diplomacy of India and Pakistan “An attempt to use sport to create a feel good atmosphere between the two countries at a time when the atmosphere of suspicion and hostility towards Pakistan is very strong.” First after the kashmire krisis in 2002 and again after the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008 cricket was used to reduce tension and pave the way for the slow normalization of relations.
North Korea raised international attention in relation to the topic of sports diplomacy based on Dennis Rodman’s unofficial Basketball Diplomacy. While opinions on Rodman’s “friendship” with Kim Jong-un polarize and many argue that it could possibly do more harm than good other aspects of sports diplomacy in North Korea have received less media attention.North Korea, a country that is not easy to visit even under normal circumstances, banned tourists from entering the country in the fall of 2014 due to concerns about the spread of Ebola. It reopened the borders in the realm of the Pyongyang marathon to allow “foreign amateurs” to take part in the sporting event. A more unconventional example was the first government sanctioned surf tour of 21 international surfers organized by the Korean International Travel Company in cooperation with the non-profit Surfing the Nations with the intention “to use surfing to create an atmosphere where we could promote a peaceful relationship between North Korea and the rest of the world” (Segoine) and the following announcement that north Korea would now commence surfing tourism. (more on North Korea and surfing here, a lecture by Laderman on surf diplomacy here and here you can book a surfing holiday in North Korea)
Aside of the positive interaction in the realm of sport events, north Koreas nuclear expansion is still a threat. The country “could be on track to have an arsenal of 100 nuclear weapons by 2020.” Until now the US and its partners have not been able to engage in continuous negotiation with North Korea. Possibly building on the interaction in relation to sport, could work to facilitate a more active level of negotiation.
Another unconventional form of sport diplomacy is Skateboard Diplomacy, worth mentioning because of the potential of exchanging culture and values the close relation among members of the skate community bring with them. “Skating is not just a board with four wheels; it’s a way to bring together people from all kinds of cultures to make a family.” One example of Half-pipe Diplomacy is the mission of Miles Jackson and a group of his friends to built the largest skate park of Latin America in Cuba. (An Article on this can be found here) Another example is the US sponsored initiative documented in the video below.
Concluding it can be said that while sport is not a panacea for hostilities between nations it can play an important part in building a bridge among two countries that have an otherwise tense relationship. In the words of Nelson Mandela:
“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can awaken hope where there was previously only despair. Sport speaks to people in a language they can understand.”