There is a universal passion for sport that international diplomacy has often tapped. After all, it’s tough to find a greater unifier that can transcend culture and borders. Academics say sports diplomacy can raise the quality of dialogue and socio-cultural understanding, but it has gone well beyond that – it is often used to facilitate solutions to geopolitical, racial and social problems.

While nobody contests the intent of sports diplomacy, the jury is still out on its effectiveness. Can sport truly go beyond being a people-to-people tool to play a substantial role in solving international issues? What if sport is used instead to support dubious causes and rogue nations? Also, can it support a social and infrastructure agenda?

From ping pong to soccer

Following the visit of the national table tennis team, Richard Nixon became the first US President to visit China. photo: White House

It all began with ‘ping pong diplomacy’. China’s information blockade, in force since 1949, was broken on April 10, 1971, by a U.S. table tennis team. The team, invited by China and accompanied by a media delegation, was defeated but it eventually led to the U.S. lifting its two-decades-old embargo on trade with the Asian powerhouse. The thaw led to Richard Nixon visiting China a few months later, becoming the first U.S. President to do so. The team’s visit was termed ‘the ping heard around the world’ and table tennis was referred to by ‘Time’ magazine as a metaphor for relations between the two countries. Though often rocky, even hostile, the relationship between the two superpowers has continued to grow – especially on the trade front.

Sport also played a leading role in South Africa repealing apartheid, eventually ending its global isolation. Its exclusion from the 1964 Summer Olympics and from other sports, most notably cricket, brought the brutality of the regime into global focus, making people aware of what was going on and mobilising support for apartheid’s victims.

Nelson Mandela - Wikimedia Commons
Nelson Mandela played a key role in motivating South Africa to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Once apartheid was gone, sport’s role was extended to ease the country back into the global mainstream. Cricket was one such sport. After South Africa’s reinstatement as a test-playing nation, the team played its first ever one-day international – its first recognised international match since 1970 – in Kolkata against India on November 10, 1991. South Africa went on to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which it famously won after being inspired by the country’s recently-elected President, Nelson Mandela. A decade and a half later, South Africa hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup, seemingly settling the debate over whether sport could overcome political barriers.

Cricket diplomacy

Cricket has been one of the casualties of the wars India and Pakistan have fought in the seemingly unending standoff over Kashmir province. Cricketing ties were reestablished after a 15-year pause in 2004. Visa regulations were relaxed to allow fans to cross the border to watch the matches. Pakistan ruler General Pervez Musharraf attempted to take this forward by visiting India the next year for a cricket match. Such was the optimism and hype around it that the trip was considered a diplomatic act on par with a bilateral summit. However, not much came of it in the long term with cricketing relations being frozen again and Kashmir more of a flashpoint than ever.

Three Crucial Questions for the President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf
Pakistan ruler Pervez Musharraf’s 2005 visit yielded no long-term benefits. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Weirdly enough, even China has used cricket – though the game is not popular in the country and it has not taken part in any international tournament of note – to strengthen its influence in the Caribbean. Taiwan has been the trigger. As the 2007 World Cup, hosted by the West Indies, approached, China gave Antigua $55 million and Jamaica $30 million for new stadiums. Tiny St. Lucia got a cricket and a football stadium. Over the years, China has spent more than $132 million on cricket infrastructure in the West Indies, often dwarfing the International Cricket Council’s budget to promote cricket globally.

China followed that up by building embassies in most of these islands, giving it a larger diplomatic presence in the Caribbean than the United States. It wasn’t a coincidence that several countries that recognise Taiwan as a separate state are in this region. The result of China’s generosity: Grenada and Dominica derecognised Taiwan. Taiwan responded by taking a leaf out of China’s playbook, giving $21 million to St Kitts and Nevis and $12 million to St Vincent and the Grenadines for cricket grounds. Whether or not China and Taiwan achieved anything in the end, their cricket diplomacy certainly benefited the small island nations.

It doesn’t always work

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The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were boycotted by the communist bloc as revenge for the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Mega events, such as the Olympics, have been the staging grounds for diplomatic crossfire. Moscow’s 1980 Olympics were boycotted by the U.S. and other countries. United Kingdom Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher also advised her country’s athletes to boycott the Games, though her call went unheeded by some sports associations. In all, 66 countries skipped the Games, denting the U.S.S.R.’s global standing.

But this resulted in the communist bloc’s own boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles – in all, 14 nations didn’t turn up. The ones who suffered because of the politics were athletes who deserved to showcase their skills on a global stage and the audience that deserved to watch them in action. Absolutely nothing concrete in terms of politics or diplomacy was achieved through these boycotts other than a further souring of relations.

New areas of focus

Today, sports diplomacy is looking away from international relations to new areas of focus, such as infrastructure, development and social integration. Happily, this seems to be snowballing. Today, cities vie to host large international events for the development opportunities they bring. These span urban and sports infrastructure, transport, housing and the overall economic boost. FIFA said that the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro generated one million jobs, more than 70% of them permanent. The city hosted the Olympics just two years later, which resulted in investments worth billions in roads, a metro line, new housing – all of which had lasting benefits.

Not all of it was a success, of course. Many of the new sports facilities now lie abandoned and crumbling – just as others built for major sporting events, such as in Beijing in 2008. After the games are over, governments discover that the little revenue the venues generate cannot keep up with the cost of maintaining the facilities. South Korea designed their $109 million Olympic Stadium (a relatively modest price tag for stadium construction) with the intention of tearing it down once the games were over.

Australia, meanwhile adopted a more people-to-people approach. In 2015, it detailed a bilateral approach to sports diplomacy focusing on the Indo-Pacific region in a paper termed ‘Australian Sports Diplomacy Strategy 2015-18’. It envisaged, among other programmes, exchanges that allowed coaches and athletes to “foster reciprocal links and promote partnerships” between sports bodies. Australian leagues have since seen an influx of Pacific Island players, facilitating a cultural exchange. This, the argument goes, will lead to a greater understanding between countries and stronger political alliances.

On the social front, the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany is an important case study. Still suffering under the legacy of its Nazi past, the government used the event for public diplomacy. The authorities hired people who spoke different languages – showcasing a new, inclusive nation – and ran a campaign to change perceptions about the country.

2006 Germany World Cup - Wikimedia Commons
The power of public diplomacy was evident during the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

We would be hard put to find anything that generates as much emotion as sport. It has the capacity to divide and unite in equal measure, investing in the people who run sports a responsibility to use them wisely. As sports evolve in reach, scale and form, so will the ways we can use them for good. Sports diplomacy, as we’ve seen, is exploring new frontiers and will find even more in the future. It may have had a less than perfect record when it comes to mending international relations, but it does help do better on the social front.

Sport has always meant more than teams or individuals competing; can it mean a better world for everyone? It has a real shot.