Home The Washington Diplomat October 2011 U.S. Plays Up Power of Sports In Win-Win Approach to Diplomacy

U.S. Plays Up Power of Sports In Win-Win Approach to Diplomacy

U.S. Plays Up Power of Sports In Win-Win Approach to Diplomacy

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The use of sports to foster peace can be traced to ancient Greece, when the kings of the dominant city-states signed a truce, or ekecheiria (literally, a “holding of hands”), guaranteeing the safety of athletes, their families and pilgrims traveling to and from the Olympic Games.

“During the truce, wars were suspended, armies were prohibited from entering Elis [the site of the ancient Olympics] or threatening the Games, and legal disputes and the carrying out of death penalties were forbidden,” according to the Perseus Digital Library of Tufts University.

Today, sports have again taken center field as an instrument for promoting international harmony as the U.S. Department of State, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has rapidly expanded the range and geographical reach of its sports-related engagement programs.

During the summer of 2011, the “high season” of sports exchanges, State Department-sponsored programs included a 10-day basketball exchange with Saudi Arabia, the first of its kind, that brought eight women players and two coaches to the United States; the third Iraq youth basketball exchange, in which 10 Iraqi athletes played ball and participated in team-building exercises with their American counterparts in the D.C. area; a Women’s World Cup Initiative that worked with female sports administrators from Bolivia, Malaysia, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories to enhance women and girl’s soccer programs; a sports exchange for athletes with disabilities; and a mission by NBA superstars Bo Outlaw and Dee Brown and WNBA legends Edna Campbell and Tamika Raymond to Africa.

While Brown and Raymond led basketball clinics with primary and secondary school students in Tanzania, Outlaw and Campbell met with over 100 youth in Congo who participate in a U.S. Embassy English-speaking initiative. They joined a roster of 42 NBA and WNBA players and coaches who have conducted similar programs in 19 countries on behalf of the State Department since 2004.

Photo: State Department
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, center, flanked by Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. to her left and Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki to her right, meets with 16 Japanese baseball and softball players at the State Department.

These basketball exchanges represent a mere fraction of the sports diplomacy programs run by the SportsUnited office, part of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, often in cooperation with embassies around the world. Since 2003, SportsUnited has organized initiatives with most countries spanning the globe, in specialized sports such as archery, volleyball, wrestling, table tennis and water polo, as well as more mainstream activities such as baseball, basketball and, of course, the worldwide phenomenon of soccer. In addition, it has run disability sports programs and offered instruction on managing sports community centers.

This unique form of educational and cross-cultural exchange taps the universal power of sports to unite different people. For Secretary Clinton, sports is an effective vehicle for advancing multiple, often overlapping diplomatic aims: promoting women’s rights, giving voice to minorities, improving relations with the Muslim world, helping peoples stricken by disaster. Sports can also offer hope to those living in poverty.

The heightened prominence given to sports as a tool of American diplomacy is one facet of Clinton’s focus on “smart power” diplomacy, placing greater emphasis on nontraditional forms of statecraft. This “21st-century” approach highlights people-to-people exchanges, digital engagement, and sports diplomacy as a means for connecting with youth and empowering women and minority populations in countries of strategic importance to U.S. foreign policy.

“For me, sports is, in and of itself, terrific, but it’s also a symbol for so much of what we want to see in the world,” Clinton said at a June 6 reception launching the Women’s World Cup Initiative to promote women in sports, held in the State Department’s Benjamin Franklin Room. “As long as human beings are on this planet, we’re going to compete. But let’s compete with rules. Let’s compete in a way that doesn’t kill people. Let’s compete to determine who is the best soccer player or the best basketball player or the best long-distance runner.”

Victor Cha, a Georgetown professor and author of the 2009 book “Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia,” said that overall, sports has been a very good tool of diplomacy, “in the sense that it’s a way for people from different political spheres to interact.”

“Sports quietly espouse liberal ideals,” Cha told The Diplomat. “Everybody plays by the same rules; we all know the rules; it’s transparent; there’s no favoritism. These are classic liberal values.”

Sports, with its widespread appeal, is also a no-brainer when it comes to promoting a positive image of the United States abroad. Over the summer though, the State Department got a black eye, and a lot of bad press, when it denied the visas of several Ugandan little leaguers due to a dispute over their real ages — thereby denying the Ugandan team the chance to play in the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania. Incidents like that tend to attract the most attention, but under the radar, SportsUnited has worked with hundreds of athletes around the world and the experiences have been low profile but highly positive.

As a recent example, the State Department organized its first sports exchange with Japan, a baseball program that brought 16 Japanese youth and four coaches from areas ravaged by the natural disasters that took place in March of this year to the United States for a two-week series of clinics, including one with baseball icon Cal Ripken Jr., at the Ripken Youth Baseball Academy in Aberdeen, Md.

Ripken, who began serving as a sports diplomat in 2007 and has already gone on missions to China and Nicaragua, will travel to Japan in November to engage more youth through baseball. Sports diplomacy works, he told The Diplomat, “because it is a common language. You don’t necessarily need to communicate through words to play a sport together and to compete or just have fun.”

Ripken said he saw this camaraderie during his trip to China, where “it was a challenge at first because of the language barrier and because most of the kids never played baseball and didn’t understand the game. But what struck me was how quickly sports brought us together. We were laughing and having fun just hitting the balls and throwing them around. It was remarkable how adaptable kids are in general and how willing they are to try new things and just play.”

On a more serious note, sports can also play a vital role in helping ease life’s hardships and tragedies. Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki described how he became involved in the baseball exchange through the family of Taylor Anderson, a 24-year-old native of Richmond, Va., who had been teaching English in Japan when the tsunami struck, taking her life. For her family, meeting with the Japanese baseball players, who had also lost loved ones from the disasters, enabled healing.

Fujisaki met with Clinton, Ripken and the young baseball players at the State Department on Aug. 9, after which he invited the family members, players and State officials to his residence on Nebraska Avenue for a get-together.

Though the ambassador agreed that baseball could serve as an effective medium for connecting the United States and Japan, he acknowledged that for him personally, it was not as consuming a passion as it was for his predecessor, Ryozo Kato, ambassador in Washington from 2001 to 2008. Kato, who Fujisaki said had a “photographic memory” of the sport, is today commissioner of Japanese professional baseball.

For Fujisaki, sports also highlighted civility in Japanese-U.S. relations. After the earthquake hit in March, many Americans told him they were impressed by the lack of rioting and chaos, and praised the civil discipline of the Japanese. The tables were turned, Fujisaki said, when the Americans took on the Japanese in the final game of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in July, a match he compared to David fighting Goliath.

“After our girls miraculously won, the Americans were so gracious in congratulating us, saying they wanted to win, but would only have wanted to lose to the Japanese,” Fujisaki recalled. “The Japanese were really impressed with Americans’ civility too.”

Secretary Clinton, in addition to using sports to foster post-trauma recovery, has adeptly adopted it as a powerful tool for advancing women’s rights and boosting relations with the Muslim world.

In her remarks on June 6, Clinton linked the Women’s World Cup to the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs. The secretary of state shared some personal reflections from a memorable soccer game she played in junior high school.

“These girls were from a different environment than I was from, they were from a different kind of background, they had it a lot harder, a lot tougher than I and my teammates did, and they threw themselves into that game. For them it really, really mattered whether they won or not; it wasn’t just some nice way to spend an afternoon. Because they were seeing it as a part of their own lives and their own ambitions and their own goals, to keep striving and striving.”

This experience taught her the power of sports to empower women, “to discharge that incredible energy that they want to put into being the best they can be,” and showed her why it’s “the most popular exchanges we do.”

“And when I go to other countries around the world and we talk about what kind of exchanges that people are looking for, very often a leader will say, how about a sports exchange? And we want to do more and more of that.”

Photo: State Department
Ugandan soccer coaches throw their balls in the air. In recent years, the State Department has significantly expanded sports engagement programs such as the International Sports Connection (ISC), which in May partnered with the University of Minnesota to conduct a sports exchange with Ugandan athletes and coaches.


So that’s exactly what Clinton has been doing, especially in her outreach to Muslim nations. During a Sept. 7 reception, also in the Franklin Room, to mark Eid ul-Fitr, the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Clinton took the opportunity to honor Muslim athletes, professional and amateur, from across America. In her remarks, she adroitly tied the U.S. ideal of respecting religious freedom to the universally celebrated “human drive to run faster and climb higher.”

“And that’s part of the reason the State Department sponsors sports exchange programs and sends sports ambassadors around the world. And for all the athletes joining us this evening, you may never have thought of yourself exactly as a role model, but you are,” she said.

Clinton introduced two Muslim-American athletes to the guests. Towering above her, NFL football player Ephraim Salaam of the Detroit Lions described the challenge of fasting for Ramadan while going through training camp (“tough, but doable”), while the comparatively diminutive Kulsoom Abdullah, a Pakistani-American computer engineer and competitive weightlifter, discussed how she was blocked from major competitions because she chooses to wear traditional clothing covering her arms, legs and head.

After her appeal to the International Weightlifting Federation generated international support and led to the organization approving new regulations allowing Muslim women to wear clothing compatible with their religion, Abdullah said she had learned to believe in the power of the individual to bring about change.

“Culture and society define my choices as a women, and moreso as a Muslim woman, as not fitting a stereotype. But religiously, woman have the capacity and are meant to be strong and should seek education,” Abdullah said. She added that in a society that focuses greatly on women’s appearance, “one of the advantages of sports is that it builds confidence.”

Still, as with any powerful tool, there are pitfalls.

“What makes sports unique is it’s very high profile,” said Cha of Georgetown University. “It’s not like a démarche behind closed doors; everyone sees it. It’s a huge platform in which to send both positive and negative messages.”

Sadly, one such negative message seemed to emerge from the much-publicized fourth-quarter melee that broke out on Aug. 18 as the Georgetown Hoyas men’s basketball team engaged the Chinese army team, the Bayi Rockets, in what was supposed to be a “goodwill match.” The YouTube video of the “Great Brawl of China”, showing chairs and bottles being thrown during the exhibition game in Beijing, has been viewed well over a million times.

Media voices differed over whether the incident was indicative of souring relations between two great powers, as well as over what it said about the effectiveness of sports as diplomacy. Brook Larmer, author of a book on Chinese NBA player Yao Ming, reflected in the Washington Post on the days of “ping-pong diplomacy,” when Chinese banners proclaimed “Friendship First, Competition Second.” The order of this old slogan had now been reversed, Larmer concluded.

Post opinion writer Charles Lane, listing multiple failed sports diplomacy efforts, took the “basketbrawl” as further evidence of their impossibility. “Actually, I can’t believe that anyone still takes the idea of international-friendship-through-sports seriously,” he wrote.

But Cha, who traveled with the Hoyas throughout the trip to Beijing and Shanghai, offered a more sanguine view in an article he wrote for the PacNet Newsletter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies titled “What Really Happened to the Hoyas in Beijing.” The fight, he said, was an unfortunate exception in what had overall been a very positive trip to China. It had occurred because “competetive juices got flowing, emotions got high, and things got out of hand.”

But thanks to mutual reconcilliation that followed, including “very senior levels of the Chinese government,” it could still serve as a learning experience.

“As long as both sides reconcile and learn from these incidents, they will be for the betterment of relations between the two people and countries,” Cha wrote. “That was certainly the experience that these young ballplayers and their Chinese counterparts took away from that game.”

About the Author

Jacob Comenetz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.