Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Mixed Record of Sports Diplomacy

Council on Foreign Relations

Interview by Eleanor Albert; Jonathan Grix, Interviewee

Image from article, with caption: East Germany was a perennial powerhouse at winter games, including the 1988 Calgary Games where it won gold and bronze in the women’s 1000 meters Speedskating event.

The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeonchang, South Korea can create a positive vibe on the Korean peninsula, but the event is unlikely to yield lasting diplomatic gains, says Jonathan Grix, professor of sports policy at Manchester Metropolitan University. While the impact of sports on diplomacy may be limited, he says, events like the Olympics continue to attract countries for their value in public diplomacy. There have clearly been instances where participating countries boosted their reputations, he says. Sometimes, however, the effect is ephemeral, or nationalism becomes a vehicle for “interstate rivalry played out on the sporting pitch,” Grix says. ...

How have states used sports to try to advance diplomacy?

There are two or three ways that sports can be used for public diplomacy. The first one is in hosting a sports mega-event like the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup. But these can also include more regional events like the Pan American Games, the Commonwealth Games, or the Asian Games. The hosting of a major sports-event with global appeal is one major way states attempt to showcase themselves, increase their international prestige, and accrue soft power.

Another way is for states who do not host sports mega-events to use elite sports success to raise their profile. An obvious example would be East Germany [before reunification in 1990] and how success on the sporting field aided East Germany’s recognition as a separate state from West Germany in the 70s. Its athletes were called “diplomats in track suits,” as they were seen as excellent ambassadors on running tracks around the world. Cuba does this too. Though perhaps best known for exporting doctors as a form of soft power, it has also showcased boxing and baseball stars.

Finally, states can combine these two methods: achieving elite sports success and hosting a major sporting event. However, there is little research that underpins the notion that being a top performing country correlates with added international prestige or diplomatic power. This has typically been something that advanced capitalist states have done, but increasingly emerging states are looking for success on the podium when they host events. ...

How successful have big event hosts been in recent years?

A ... positive example is Germany’s FIFA World Cup in 2006. It was one of the most successful sports mega-events in terms of changing a state’s national image abroad. Germany’s image had been colored by its Nazi past and the idea that Germany wants to dominate Europe. Among the striking aspects of that World Cup was that they struggled to find infrastructure to invest in because theirs was already in such good shape. So Germany spent the funds and resources on public diplomacy efforts. The foreign office put an awful lot of money into creating positive public diplomacy outcomes. They hired people who spoke lots of different languages and ran all sorts of efforts to send out a positive message and change the minds of how citizens of other countries saw Germany. That is public diplomacy. ...
 What is the role of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in sports diplomacy?
The IOC has been instrumental in starting a number of political arguments. The IOC has recognized states that have not yet been internationally recognized by the United Nations; including recognizing East Germany before anyone else even thought about it; it also recognized Kosovo in 2014 [the former Serbian province has not yet received UN recognition]. By granting states IOC recognition, they could compete in the Olympics. These are very political moves that often act as a precursor to diplomatic recognition and come from a body that is one of the least democratic that you can think of. Additionally, when a country wishes to host an Olympic event, it has to subscribe to specific rules set down by the IOC. The legal infrastructure of sovereign states has to change to accommodate such rules, including labor and taxation regulations. You thereby have a situation whereby an undemocratic, unelected body can tell a national, sovereign state what to do in the name of sport.

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