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The continued relevance of sport diplomacy

As Heather Dichter pointed out in her 2014 H-Diplo essay, a conundrum of sport diplomacy, perhaps its signal paradox, is the extent to which nations have used sport as a proving ground on the world stage. But these “mega-events” that nations require to prove their superiority also necessitate international cooperation. The field has made significant strides in the nearly two years since Dichter evaluated it, and the essays published in this forum reflect the discipline’s growth as well as avenues for further inquiry. Current American and global politics and their illumination on the playing field demonstrate the extent to which actors within and sometimes without a country deepen understanding of how politics and sport work in the international arena.

Just this year, athletes have made clear how complex, and yet how exciting, it will be to study the history of sport and international relations of the post-9/11 era. The recent Rio Olympiad, for example, featured fascinating tensions between health personnel, pregnant women, the Brazil National Olympic Committee (NOC), the Brazilian government, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) over visitors’ potential exposure to Zika. In addition to a health crisis that particularly affects women and unborn children, in the context of an event that sometimes sees pregnant athletes compete (as when American Kerri Walsh Jennings took gold in beach volleyball five weeks pregnant in 2012), Brazilian administrators and Rio officials faced controversy over whether they would be ready for the Games in a throwback to the 1968 fears of a “mañana” mentality that the first developing nation Games saw in Mexico City. Outsiders also worried about violent crime in Rio, a fear American swimmer Ryan Lochte and his teammates seemingly confirmed when they reported being robbed after winning gold medals. When their story fell apart, however, it highlighted the question of how athletes’ entitlement at home can embarrass a nation abroad.

The fielding of a Refugee Olympic Team (ROT), in contrast, allowed athletes from war-torn nations to compete, challenging the IOC’s own foundational basis in discrete nations’ participation. That said, the face the IOC chose to publicize the team, that of Yusra Mardini, was beautiful, and backed by a heartrending, selfless story; originally from Syria, Mardini had escaped to Germany in 2015, and had (with other swimmers) towed her rescue boat from Turkey to Greece en route. American corporation Visa sponsored the athletes and featured Mardini in a prominent advertisement, “The Swim,” it ran during the Games, juxtaposing images of her in the pool and pulling a simulated refugee dingy, with her voiceover. “When the engine died that night,” she intoned, “I told myself not to give up, to give everything. I did then, and I will now.”  The ad pointed up the role of corporate actors on the international sport stage in such fraught moments as the Syrian Civil War, and used a woman to do so.

In the United States, the post-Olympic connection of sport to racial and electoral politics continues to highlight domestic tensions that may well extend abroad. As San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick remains in the news, he draws on calls for racial agency and manhood that have extended abroad for more than a century – in, for example, the footsteps of Progressive Era-boxer Jack Johnson; the sixties protests of stars Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith; and the 1990s refusal to rise of NBA star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf – in demanding that the United States live up to its democratic creed in its expectation of athletes to perform in elite competition on the world stage. Kaepernick’s compromise of “taking a knee” after discussion with former U.S. Army Green Beret Nate Boyer points up the continued connection of the U.S. military to sport and Americans’ own perception of its military presence abroad as being naturally, organically bound to men’s sport.

Meanwhile, U.S. president-elect Donald Trump’s mockery of a disabled reporter on the campaign trail and controversial history toward women, communities of color, and immigrants should, perhaps, ask academics to observe with interest how his administration might approach sport as a vehicle for foreign policy. President Obama, a sport enthusiast and man whose heritage extends across continents, has made use of his love for basketball – a connection begun with his Kenyan father’s parting gift of a ball in the 1960s – to connect with Americans, and Donald Trump may, as seems his wont, continue to operate in unconventional ways at home and abroad which might use sport. His recent conversation with Taiwan, which has irked the Chinese, should remind us that the incoming administration will perhaps need the kind of informal diplomatic connections through culture – of which sport is a principal one – to navigate the currents abroad he wishes to challenge. Furthermore, how will communities at home and abroad that face potential restrictions – those seeking asylum or naturalization, for example, or disabled people – respond to Trump’s rhetoric and policy? Sport may prove, across the world, a visible means of dramatic response. As a disabled athlete and scholar, I wonder about these questions from an insider-outsider perspective. Whatever the future holds, the importance of the history and present of sport diplomacy seems more relevant than ever before.

Featured image credit: Tower Bridge by ahnssoni. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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