Also See: Where to Study Sports Diplomacy
At the start of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, it was not sporting prowess, but sports diplomacy, that stole the show. North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, became the first member of the family dynasty that rules the northern half of the Korean Peninsula to visit the southern half since the Korean War ended with a truce in 1953. Kim more or less stole the limelight from athletes in the early events — who remembers which country won men’s or women’s ski jumping, or that a Russian athlete won a medal, even though Russia wasn’t officially at the games? Dubbed “North Korea’s Ivanka,” she appeared in pictures with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and invited him to the North, and completely blanked U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.
More controversially, North Korea’s former spymaster, Kim Yong-chol, led Pyongyang’s Olympic delegation, even though he’s accused of orchestrating a deadly attack on a South Korean warship in 2010. Many foreign policy pundits — and South Koreans — derided the North’s charm offensive as, well, offensive, given the existential threat the Hermit Kingdom poses not only to its neighbor, but to the world. They also questioned the power of so-called sports diplomacy to solve a decades-old dispute that has bedeviled countless heads of state.
“I don’t think it means anything diplomatically. I can’t see the agreements with North and South Korea having any long-term effect. There is certainly a good measure of symbolism, but that is not going to change much,” said Jonathan Grix, editor in chief of the International Journal of Sport Policy, in a Feb. 6 interview with Eleanor Albert of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Will taekwondo achieve what diplomacy hasn’t?” asked Krishnadev Calamur in a Jan. 9 article for The Atlantic, arguing that the record on sports diplomacy is spotty. “[A]ny soccer hooligan will tell you that sports could just as well stoke tensions as defuse them.”
In a Jan. 22 op-ed for The Washington Post, sports management professor Heather Dichter similarly warned: “The antagonism between the two Koreas … along with the difficulties in previous Olympic negotiations, suggests that observers should temper their expectations. Sport can go only so far in diplomacy.”
Yet a month after the Olympics began, South Korea’s national security advisor, Chung Eui-yong, stood on the lawn of the White House and made the dramatic announcement that Kim Jong-un had asked to meet with President Trump — and that Trump accepted. No one really knows if the historic breakthrough was inspired by the Olympic détente, President Moon’s outreach, Chinese pressure, the White House’s threats of a “bloody nose” strike, Trump’s verbal taunts or, more likely, the bite of economic sanctions. Regardless, the June meeting — assuming it happens — will be the biggest foreign policy gambit of Trump’s presidency and — assuming it isn’t a disaster — a victory for Moon’s decision to invite the North to the Games.
Sports diplomacy is defined by Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs as “the intentional use of sporting events and people to undertake representative or diplomatic activities by government.” Stuart Murray, an associate professor at Bond University in Australia, whose research interests include sports diplomacy, defines it as the practice of using “sports people and sporting events to engage, inform, and create a favourable image amongst foreign publics and organisations to shape their perceptions in a way that is more conducive to achieving a government’s foreign policy goals.”
Murray notes several reasons why governments turn to sports diplomacy, including that it is “a proactive, original, and pioneering form of engagement that illustrates to the public at home and abroad that a state’s diplomacy is no longer elite, aloof, and out-of-date.” Another reason he cites (he lists 7 in total in a 2012 article published in the Diplomacy and Statecraft journal) is that “estranged states can use sport as a way of exploring the normalisation of diplomatic relations.” Think Ping-Pong diplomacy, which, in 1971, saw the U.S. Ping-Pong team become the first official U.S. delegation in more than 20 years to set foot in China, paving the way for renewed dialogue between Beijing and Washington and for President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972.
Kim Yo-jong’s presence in Pyeongchang, along with that of North Korean athletes, a very large cheering squad and performance artists, had been decided on at talks between the North and South in early January. Those talks were rapidly put together after Kim Jong-un suggested in his New Year’s speech that the North should be allowed to send a team to compete in the Olympics. A month later, North and South Korean athletes marched under one flag at the opening ceremony, and women from the North suited up with their South Korean counterparts as part of a mixed country team for women’s ice hockey. They got trounced by Switzerland in their first outing, but the match was probably the most talked-about event in the early days of the Games.
This was seen as something of a coup for sports diplomacy, especially in light of the fact that the North had a much different reaction in 1988, when the South hosted the Seoul Summer Games. Pyongyang, then ruled by Kim Il-sung, the current Kim’s granddad, wanted to co-host the Olympics with the South, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was only willing to give the North a couple of events, not a full-on partnership. With their demand rejected, they first tried to convince allies — the U.S.S.R., East European nations, Cuba and China — to boycott the games. But after that request was snubbed (except by Cuba), the North blew up a Korean Air passenger plane, killing more than 100 people, reportedly in an attempt to destabilize Seoul ahead of the Games and scare off participants.
Likewise, the Pyeongchang Games took place against a backdrop of sky-high tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Last year, the North conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test and ballistic missile launches theoretically capable of striking the U.S. mainland. In the past, North Korea’s boasts that it could put nuclear warheads on those missiles and lob them at the United States were largely dismissed as hyperbole. Now, many experts concede that the North could be months ago from mastering that technological feat.
Given these heightened tensions, there were legitimate fears that North Korea might try to disrupt the Pyeongchang Olympics. Instead, the Games went off without a hitch and Kim Jong-un is reportedly prepared to talk about denuclearization while dropping demands that the U.S. and South Korea freeze military exercises during the negotiations.
Yet the naysayers — of both the upcoming Trump-Kim summit and of sports diplomacy in general — are right to be wary. Since the 1990s, Pyongyang has perpetually broken promises to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for security assurances and aid. Many experts warn it is highly unlikely that Kim would ever give up the nuclear arsenal he views as key to his regime’s survival — at least not without assurances that would be nearly impossible for the U.S. to stomach, such as pulling U.S. troops out of the region and removing America’s nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan. On the flip side, Kim will be confronting a volatile U.S. president with scant knowledge of the complexities of the Korean nuclear standoff, along with two hawkish new advisors — National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — both of whom have supported regime change in the past.
The expected meeting is also not necessarily a vindication of sports diplomacy, which has a mixed track record. If precedent is anything to go by, the peace and unity shown at the Games in February will end now that the Olympic flame in Pyeongchang has been extinguished. Even in ancient times, when the Olympic truce was established in 9th century B.C. Greece, it was only a temporary thing, intended to allow athletes and spectators to travel safely to the town where the games were being held and then return home without getting killed by someone from the other side in whatever war was going on. Once the games were over and they were all back home, the truce was over and fighting resumed.
In modern times, the IOC appealed in 1992 for the Olympic truce to be observed to allow athletes from the former Yugoslavia to participate in the Barcelona Games. Fighting in Yugoslavia continued for years after the Olympics. In 1996, when the Summer Games were held in Atlanta, Norwegian speed skater Johann Olav Koss teamed up with UNICEF to lead a global campaign to raise money for children growing up in countries at war. The effort raised $15 million and in the process, UNICEF brokered a ceasefire between the warring sides in Afghanistan to coincide with the 1996 Olympics. But it was broken five days into the Games, when the Taliban launched a rocket attack on the Afghan capital of Kabul. And weeks after the Atlanta Games ended, the Taliban swept into power, which they held until 2001.
As Calamur pointed out in The Atlantic, “countries continue to rely on sports as a diplomatic tool, with limited success.” India and Pakistan have used cricket to bring the two adversaries closer together, but in the wake of deteriorating relations, the two sides now rarely play against one another.
“The U.S. and Iran are another example. The Bush administration sent a team of American wrestlers to Iran in 1998 where they were warmly welcomed. Sporting exchanges continued through the Obama years — but relations between the Trump administration and Iran’s regime in Tehran are tense, and after Iranians were placed on the president’s travel ban, the Islamic republic denied visas to U.S. wrestlers,” Calamur wrote.
He noted that sports “can also effectively serve as a showcase for often ugly nationalism,” citing the example of Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and Palestinian militants who killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
To British author George Orwell, sports and diplomacy are like oil and water. Orwell once called sports “war minus the shooting” and, according to an article in Sport in History by Kingston University emeritus professor Peter J. Beck, Orwell regarded international sport as “one of the most visible peacetime manifestations of nationalism, a divisive force within and between countries.”
In his Council on Foreign Relations interview, Jonathan Grix, a professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, agrees that nationalism is an ugly side of sports.
“Take 1956, when the Soviets effectively invaded Hungary. At the Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, there was a famous water polo match in the semifinals round between Hungary and the Soviet Union where there was blood in the water during the violent competition. The match mirrored what was going on in the real world in sport,” he said in the CFR brief. “For some, sport like this is simply ‘war by other means’; for others, sporting rivalry is preferable to real-world conflicts.”
Another way that sports can impact international affairs is simply by elevating a country’s profile. Grix cites mega sporting events such as Brazil’s 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics; Russia’s 2014 Sochi Games and its upcoming 2018 World Cup; China’s 2008 Beijing Games and upcoming 2022 Winter Games; and Qatar’s 2022 World Cup. But the verdict is still out on whether these ambitious endeavors can actually change global perceptions of the (oftentimes-autocratic) governments behind them, or whether they amount to a massive sinkhole of wasted money, corruption and bad press.
Nevertheless, the United States still ostensibly believes in the power of sport to influence politics. The State Department hails sports diplomacy as “an integral part of efforts to build ever-strengthening relations between the United States and other nations” that transcends linguistic and sociocultural differences.
And the U.S. is indeed active in sports diplomacy — even if Pence and Kim-the-sister studiously avoided making eye contact in Pyeongchang. After World War II, the United States and Japan engaged in baseball games that inspired a long tradition of baseball in Japan. Sportsmen from Iran and the U.S. met on the soccer field at the 1998 World Cup in an example of football diplomacy. And long before President Barack Obama re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba, the communist island’s national baseball team played two exhibition games against the Baltimore Orioles — one in Maryland and the other in Havana.
Today, the State Department supports initiatives and clinics in places ranging from Costa Rica to Mozambique, many with an emphasis on diversity, gender equality and youth engagement. The State Department has deployed famous athletes such as figure skater Michelle Kwan, baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and basketball star Shaquille O’Neal to countries such as Russia, China, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Ukraine and Lebanon.
While such efforts may benefit children in underserved communities, their overall impact is difficult to gauge. As for larger sporting events such as the Olympics, the symbolism of bringing archenemies together makes headlines, but none has fundamentally changed relations between the two countries involved, other than the time spent on the field, the slopes, the ice, the mats or the pitch.
Where to Study Sports Diplomacy
Several universities around the world offer majors, minors, courses or master’s degrees in sports diplomacy.
On the doorstep of Washington, D.C., George Mason University in Virginia offers an undergraduate minor in Sport and Conflict Resolution, which helps prepare students to work for organizations dedicated to using sports for development, community building and peace. Undergraduates who choose the minor take courses in sports management and conflict resolution.
The University of the West of Scotland has partnered with the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin to offer a one-year master of arts degree in cultural diplomacy and international sport. Students spend one semester in Paisley, Scotland, and the other in Berlin, where they are taught strategies, policies and practices for advancing cultural diplomacy, and how to apply these to different circumstances. Students can choose to specialize in either sports or music as diplomatic tools.
The International University of Monaco (Prince Albert’s wife is former South African Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock) offers a master’s degree in sustainable peace through sport. The multidisciplinary program seeks to educate and train graduate students to harness the potential of sport for building and promoting sustainable peace across the globe. Classes are online and at the IUM in Monaco.
“Sport and Diplomacy: ‘More than a Game'” at the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS University of London is open to graduate students and “aims to develop a comprehensive understanding of how sports and international sporting institutions function as non-state actors in diplomacy.”
— Karin Zeitvogel
About the Author
Karin Zeitvogel is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.