Sports diplomacy

The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang #PyeongChang2018 are just about to begin! A grand feast for all the sports fans – and an opportunity for all the international relations fans to learn something new about diplomacy. These two fields are very much interlinked at least from the very beginning of the idea of Olympic Games: athletes were offered safe passage even through territories torn by wars and conflicts in the Ancient Greece.

Sports in general, not only in the time of the Olympics, can inspire positive events. Like in 1914, at the Christmas Eve of the first year of the World War I, when British and German soldiers introduced a one-day cease fire, played a football game and shot some goals instead of bullets. Or in 2006, when – also thanks to the campaign conducted by Didier Drogba – the Ivory Coast was able to form a football team from both parts of the divided country and compete jointly in the African Cup of Nations. One should say then that sports is above politics. Or is it?

In this new chapter of the alphabet of diplomacy series, I will focus on sports diplomacy, a key element of public diplomacy of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Through sports, countries can reach individuals in every corner of the world – we could just observe the global madness about Super Bowl, now we’re in Pyeongchang and in a few months we will watch games and bite nails during Mundial in Russia.

There is no other field of human activity that unites and divides people so much, that generates so much emotion – and that countries can use so much in two fields: building their image and making international deals. Or ruining both of them.

Here are 4 probably most famous sports diplomacy examples:

North Korea and South Korea

After months of negotiations, North Korea announced only in January 2018. that it will send taekwondo athletes to Pyeongchang. What is more, it was agreed that the two countries will be represented by a joint female team in ice hockey. And that some military talks and talks between two Red Cross organisations will be held, too. Some commentators call it a breakthrough, especially under the circumstances of US-North Korea nuclear disputes. Others, however, point at the fact that similar events were taking place already in the past. For instance, the two countries’ representations were marching under one flag at the openings of Olympics in 2000 (Summer, Sydney) and 2006 (Winter, Turin), but they did not manage to repeat it in Beijing and later. These marches had very little, if any, positive impact on the reduction of international tensions around North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme. We will see how much of positive spirit can these Winter Olympics bring to the current affairs.

India and Pakistan

The two countries used cricket to ease bilateral, diplomatic tensions in the past. Some experts even tried to coin a term of “cricket diplomacy”. Cricket is the most popular sports discipline in both countries. Pakistanis and Indians are as mad about it as Americans are about American football or as Brazilians are about football/soccer. Hence, when India and Pakistan – having in mind bloodsheds and violent conflicts between the two – were playing against each other, the temperature in both countries was going extremely high (and one needs to know that a cricket match can take very, very long). The sole fact that the countries started to play against each other after war was a kind of a diplomatic achievement of 1978. Since then the games were held at “neutral venues” and politicians of both countries were (un)officially meeting in the margins of the events. In the 1990s the games between the two counties were suspended due to the conflict over Kashmir. India and Pakistan were playing against each other only in international tournaments but, for instance, India withdrew from the second Asian Test Championship in 1999 after the Indian Airlines plane was hijacked. A kind of a “cricket breakthrough” took place in 2004 when the Indian government agreed for a full-fledged Indian team cricket tour of Pakistan, which meant, i.e. that thousands of people were issued visas to cross borders and see matches. Players and spectators from both countries were met with hospitality and one could observe some ease in bilateral tensions. In 2005, after jointly watching a cricket game, Manmohan Singh (then the Indian prime minister) and Pervez Musharraf (then the Pakistani President) declared that the peace process between their two countries was “irreversible”. All the initiatives have been suspended, though, since 2007 due to a terrorist attack on Sri Lankan cricketers going to play a game in Lahore and later after terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008.

US and Iran

Wrestling is very popular in Iran and has historical, antique roots. When Ali Reza-Soleimani defeated an American wrestler at the wrestling world championship in 1989, the whole country celebrated and Ali Khamenei very soon increased funding for wrestling programmes. Some time later, following the invitation from Mohammad Khatami, then the Iranian president, 16 American wrestlers went to Iran in 1998 to compete in the Takhti Cup and it was the first visit of American athletes since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran (in general, not too many Americans could go/went to Iran within these 20 years). President Bill Clinton invited athletes to the White House when they returned, wanting to acknowledge and honour them. Their visit to Iran was a small step, a gesture proving that the ease in bilateral relations (very limited and slow, but still), was possible. This spirit transferred to Mundial in France, where American and Iranian teams met in the group stages and showed so much of sportsmanship that they were given the FIFA Fair Play Award. There were more than dozen visits of American wrestlers in Iran and a similar number of visits vis a vis – and they were taking place no matter the state of bilateral relations. Also, when President Donald Trump introduced the Executive Order 13769 banning several Muslim nations from coming to the US and Iran announced reciprocation, American wrestlers managed to go to Iran for the Freestyle World Cup Wrestling in Kermanshah.

US and China

This is when the term “sports diplomacy” was born. The “ping-pong diplomacy” in the early 1970s helped in reaching a grand opening of relations between the two countries and in leading to the first visit of the US President – Richard Nixon at the time – in communist China. It referred to the exchanges of American and Chinese ping-pong (table tennis) players that began after the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya (Japan) in 1971, when American players were offered an invitation to visit the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Both countries were searching for an opportunity to change the climate in bilateral relations already for some time. For instance, the American and the PRC ambassadors were meeting regularly in Pałac Myślewicki (Myślewicki Castle) in Warsaw in 1958-1970. The “Time” magazine commented on the invitation as “the ping heard round the world”. Players arrived there shortly (in April), crossing the “Bamboo Curtain” through a bridge from Hong Kong, as the first American delegation to Beijing since 1949. The sportsmen ven met with then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. On the same day President Nixon eased travel bans and trade embargos against the PRC. Taking the opportunity of the momentum, Henry Kissinger, then the Secretary of State, went to Beijing shortly after the sportsmen (in June) and started arranging the presidential visit to the PRC – it took place already in February 1972.


The impact of sports events on political decisions should not be overestimated. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute wrote in “Foreign Policy” in 2014: “Certainly, athletes often reach across diplomatic divides at international games, trading swag, pins, and jerseys. But when the final whistle blows, the lights dim, and competitors break their final handshakes, it is the same politicians who remain in charge”. Well, if sports does not change the world politics, it certainly raises awareness of international relations and processes. It can inspire events and provide some “fresh air” or a window of opportunity in relations. It takes, however, much more diplomacy than using the sports tool to cause a long-term, sustainable change.


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