The seemingly apolitical nature of sport gives it the potential of “breaking the ice” in international relations, building a favourable image of a technological pioneer, or drawing public attention to the status of countries that are not fully sovereign or whose sovereignty is only partially recognised. However, in addition to its positive aspects, sports diplomacy also has its bad side, at times referred to as “negative sports diplomacy”. Historically, the latter has been associated with the act of using sports for political manifestations via boycotting or isolating athletes, with notable examples including those representing South Africa, Taiwan, or Israel.
The character of sports diplomacy largely depends on underlying contexts of political circumstances, argues Michał Kobierecki Ph.D., from the University of Łódź
Małgorzata Cichal, The Warsaw Institute Review: We have seen ping-pong diplomacy between the US and China, cricket diplomacy allowing for contact between India and Pakistan, and football diplomacy between Armenia and Turkey, to name some examples. How is sports diplomacy understood in a broader sense?
Michał Kobierecki: Sports diplomacy can be understood in different ways. These examples you mentioned are, of course, what is most directly associated with sports diplomacy. This understanding of the term involves the use of sports to “break the ice” in international relations, taking advantage of the apparent apoliticism of sport in attempts to bring countries closer together.
The second fundamental interpretation of sports diplomacy refers to the use of sport to contribute to building a country’s international image. In this approach, sport, thanks to its widespread popularity, is a convenient medium to send appropriate messages to the world. This can be done in many ways. The most popular ones include having teams or individuals of a given country attaining significant achievements in sports or organising and hosting sports events, especially the largest ones, including those classified as “mega-events”. In recent years, virtually all hostings of the Olympic Games contributed, at least to some extent, to shaping the image of the countries where they took place. This was especially true for the Olympic Games in Beijing, where the organisers intended to communicate a whole series of messages about modern China.
These two approaches to sports diplomacy seem to be the most common. But there are also some other ways in which this notion can be defined – for example by taking into account sporting actors involved in traditional diplomatic processes of negotiation, mediation, or representation. This type of sports diplomacy is especially visible in international sports organisations such as international federations or the International Olympic Committee.
How can sport contribute to foreign policy objectives?
Countries all over the world use sport in foreign policy for two main reasons. First, albeit sport is not politics, nowadays not many people question the political importance of sport, although these areas have never fully merged or overlapped. Therefore, sport is where politicians can go much further than in the world of politics. For example, two countries may not have diplomatic relations, and their shared border may be closed, but this may not always prevent a football match from being played (although recently, for example, UEFA has introduced restrictions on the qualifying draw procedure). After all, sport is not politics. In history, we have seen many cases of such use of sport, such as the ping pong or football diplomacy that you have mentioned.
The second advantage of sport that makes it so useful for foreign policy is its popularity. Undoubtedly, it is one of the spheres of life that attracts great interest all over the world. It is no coincidence that sporting events translate into the most expensive advertising time. Consequently, if sports arouse such interest, their popularity may be used to achieve political goals – just as advertisers use it for commercial purposes. This is the basis for the possibility of using sport to shape the appropriate image of the state – shaping its soft power.
To what extent does sports diplomacy overlap with public diplomacy? What entities and areas of activity should we distinguish in this context?
This is a very complex question, and researchers have different views on the subject. A common approach is that sports diplomacy falls, in a sense, into a subcategory of public diplomacy – and I mostly identify with this interpretation. Public diplomacy is related to international communication, the recipients of which are societies all over the world. If you look at sports diplomacy, it largely involves such communication. On the other hand, however, many manifestations of sports diplomacy go beyond public diplomacy. First of all, they may involve sporting actors during, for example, negotiations between representatives of sports federations and countries’ political authorities. Such events may be organised to discuss the details of sporting events, decide on the recognition of national sports associations, or protect their sovereignty. This type of activity does not involve any forms of public diplomacy; rather, it refers to the traditionally understood diplomacy but extending it to new actors.
The primary subjects of public diplomacy are states. They, however, relatively often operate through other actors, such as sports clubs, athletes, national sports organisations, NGOs, and so on. Besides, these actors can act independently of countries, for example, through bottom-up sports exchanges, workshops, or training, and indirectly contribute to the objectives of their countries. And, of course, international sports diplomats are also actors, just like international sports federations I have already mentioned, and also such organisations as the World Anti-Doping Agency.
International sport makes it possible to draw public attention to the status of countries that are not fully sovereign or whose status as a sovereign state is disputed, such as Kosovo and the Palestinian National Authority. Who decides on their admission to international sports organizations and their right to participate in organized events?
The answer to this question is rather straightforward, although it must be stressed that formally it is not the states that are recognized, but their sports organizations. This is the exclusive competence of organizations responsible for managing individual sports. For example, continental organizations (like UEFA in the case of Europe) and FIFA decide about international football. When it comes to the Olympic Games, decisions are taken by the International Olympic Committee – but, in this case, recognition by a certain number of federations in Olympic sports is also necessary. If an international sports organisation recognises national sports organisations, this automatically entails participating in its sports competitions, taking into account the rules of eligibility for specific events.
Sports diplomacy also has its negative side – measures aimed at isolating in sports. One of the examples is the boycott of the Olympic Games in Moscow by the United States. Which state uses this form of diplomacy most often, and what are the reasons behind it?
While still treating sport as a tool for shaping international relations, we can also distinguish a notion some researchers refer to as negative sports diplomacy or sports anti-diplomacy. In this case, it is all about using sport in political struggles – to strike other countries. In practice, this has included all forms of sports boycotts or, more broadly, sports isolation. The best-known sports boycotts are, of course, those that took place during the Cold War – the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The most glaring example of sports isolation is the situation in South Africa before the country’s democratic transition, when, to a large extent, its athletes were excluded from any international competition.
For many years, sports boycott and sports isolation have indeed constituted frequent activities of states. But I would not attempt to say which state uses this weapon most often. However, it is possible to say which countries have been frequent victims of isolation in sport. These were South Africa, China, and Israel. Today, however, we can say that these weapons are mostly a thing of the past. They have been replaced by a softer boycott of sporting events by leaders of countries who, for political reasons, resign from participating in opening ceremonies, for example. Such actions make it possible to communicate an appropriate message without depriving their athletes of the opportunity to take part in the competition.
The experience of the spectator of a sporting ‘performance’ has also been developing over the last years. The organisers of this year’s Olympic Games planned to use the 5G network and the Tokyo 2020 Robot Project, making spectators familiar with the use of robots, still frowned upon in Western countries. What else can we expect?
The organisers of the Olympic Games often try to surprise the world with original ideas. The Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936 were the first to introduce television broadcasts, and the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo used satellite transmission for the first time. At the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984, spectators could watch a man fly across the stadium using the rocket belt. The Olympic Games are supposed to be mega-events, and if any technical innovations appear, they are a perfect occasion to present them to the world.
One of the current trends at the moment is paying attention to the environment. You have mentioned the Tokyo Olympics, which were supposed to take place this summer. For this event, the organizers planned an exciting initiative of producing medals from gold obtained from recycling mobile phones. If I were to make any predictions, this is the direction that the organisers of sports events will be choosing.
In your opinion, can the importance of sports diplomacy increase in the coming years?
I don’t think there is a good answer to that question. The usefulness of sports diplomacy depends primarily on the political situation. We would not have heard about ping-pong diplomacy if it had not been for the tense relationship between China and the United States and, at the same time, the desire of both countries to come closer. In this respect, however, it is interesting to observe relations between North and South Korea, in the formation of which sport is used to a large extent.
Interview by Małgorzata Cichal, The Warsaw Institute Review
Michał Marcin Kobierecki, Ph.D. isan Associate Professor in the Department of Political Theory and Political Thought, Faculty of International and Political Studies, University of Łódź. He obtained a postdoctoral degree (‘habilitation’) in 2019. His research interests include the links between sport and politics, particularly with regard to sports diplomacy, public diplomacy, and nation branding. Winner of the Scholarship of the Minister of Science and Higher Education for Outstanding Young Scientists. He has authored numerous scientific publications.