Sunday, 3 April 2011

Can sports really be a useful and long lasting diplomacy tool?

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can awaken hope where there was previously only despair. Sport speaks to people in a language they can understand.” Nelson Mandela

I think that few of us would argue with the words of Nelson Mandela regarding the importance of sport in uniting nations and overcoming some of the issues that exist between nations and within nations.

Sport is becoming an increasingly important tool in a country’s public diplomacy strategy. Academics and politicians alike have recently hailed the success of the Beijing Olympics (2008), the Football World Cup in South Africa (2010) and the Cricket World Cup in India (2011) as spectacular exhibitions that have transcended national issues and political problems.

While there is no doubt that these events have been a spectacular success with nations from across the world competing, it is perhaps more important to ask about the lasting impacts that these events have had. China certainly has a legacy from their hosting of the Olympics, however the Olympics has not succeeded in having any significant improvement in human rights in China. It has also not succeeded in preventing media censorship as the recent arguments with Google have so clearly shown.

It is also clear that events such as these can be used as a diplomacy tool, which provides an insight into the country, their people and the culture. It is perhaps no surprise then that before the 1936 Olympics in Berlin there was a significant ‘clean up’ operation ordered by Hitler and the Nazi party (who had come to power after the awarding of the Olympic Games to Berlin). They removed all anti Jewish slogans and arrested around 800 gypsies and kept them under guard until the games were finished. During this time the construction of concentration camps had already began and less than three years later Hitler had exterminated many Jews and had invaded Poland. While the games can bring countries and nations together, it can also provide a dangerous false impression about a country. For the viewers at home the experience of the Olympics can be one of fascination and awe; the reality can be very different.

While it is true that 1936 was a long time ago and the presence of the media and international awareness has improved significantly since then, it remains that sport is sometimes not able to overcome the difficulties that exist internationally, and at times is not allowed the opportunity to do so. Before the draw for the qualifiers for the 2012 European football championships, UEFA (the governing body) announced that the draw would be set to ensure that Azerbaijan would not meet Armenia, and Russia would not play Georgia. This was because of the political tensions that existed between the respective countries. While this may not have received significant press coverage, it is clear that this is a significant instance where sport is unable to transcend the political barriers that many claim it does so well. It is also clear that politics has become involved in the football world, and when sport is no longer politically neutral, its benefits may begin to decline.

Sport certainly has a place in fostering dialogue between nations and helping to instill solidarity in a nation however its ability to achieve foreign policy objectives remains questionable; does sport really bring about long term, sustainable changes? The evidence presented above would suggest not. It is important to note that while sport can, and should, be used to help improve diplomatic relations; it should not be seen as a ‘quick-fix’ to diplomatic problems and used as a substitute for institutional change.


Aliyev, E. (2009), “Azerbaijan, Armenia not to be drawn together in Euro qualifiers”, News.Az,, accessed 03.04.2011

Ndlovu, S. M. (2010),Sports as cultural diplomacy: the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa's foreign policy”, Soccer & Society, Vol.11, No 1-2, 144-153 [online], accessed: 03.04.2011

The Journal of Public Diplomacy Exchange (2010), “The Power of Sport: Should sport and diplomacy mix?”, accessed: 03.04.2011

The Nazi Olympics Berlin 1936 (2010), “The Façade of Hospitality”,, accessed 03.04.2011

Sung-joo, H. (2009), “Sports Diplomacy and the World Cup”, Korea Focus, accessed 03.04.2011

Walters, C. (2007), “Sports Diplomacy is the New Comeback Kid” University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School,, accessed 03.04.2011

1 comment:

  1. I found the point about 1936 Olympics really interesting. However, I have different answer to the question whether sport can bring long term sustainable changes. There is evidence from the major sporting events, that these helped to shape the image and reputation of country, and therefore served as a tool of nation-branding. At the present, we can see how the preparations for 2012 Olympics in London are done. The campaign seems to be very effective, and truly the Olympics will not only attract tourists for the event, but it will lead to long term changes. One needs to remember that sport, just like food, creates ties and does not discriminate. Sport diplomacy as such has a long history and it will certainly be used in the future. Although, I agree with Betina, that sport should not be used as a 'quick-fix'.