Exploring the world of diplomacy through sports

 Sporting culture has enabled nations to build relationships and ease tensions.

From the Olympics to ping pong tournaments, sports is able to facilitate international discourse and diplomacy. (Diego Torres / Daily Trojan)

When I was younger, I remember watching the Olympics and being amazed at the fact that athletes all over the world were able to peacefully come together and represent their countries so honorably. 

Now, I realize how the world of sports has served as an outlet for diplomacy between nations, transcending political and cultural boundaries in more events than just the Olympics. 

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Sports diplomacy has been in action for decades. In 1971, “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” ushered nine United States table tennis players into China, establishing the first diplomatic visit since the 1949 Chinese revolution.

This trip set the scene for the development of U.S. and China relations, eventually facilitating one of the most historic foreign visits. The positive reactions led to conversations between U.S. and Chinese officials. The next year, on a visit to China, President Richard Nixon marked the end of a lengthy no-communication relationship.

The government has also adopted a sports diplomacy program to further benefit from its effect on foreign relations. After 9/11, the U.S. Department of State’s Sports Diplomacy Division was established as a way of using soccer to reach and engage with youth communities  in the Middle East.

Today, the division runs on an annual budget of $6 million and supports four running programs: the Sports Envoy Program, the Sports Visitor Program, the International Sports Programming Initiative and the Global Sports Mentoring Program. 

Through the Sports Envoy Program, athletes and coaches travel abroad for seven to 10 days holding sports clinics, speaking at universities and talking to officials in disadvantaged communities. 

Foreign athletes, coaches and administrators visit the U.S. through the Sports Visitor Program for two weeks in a sports-based exchange.

The International Sports Programming Initiative consists of an annual sports grant competition for U.S. nonprofits to host two-way exchanges that help foreign youth develop important life skills like leadership, respect and tolerance. 

The Global Sports Mentoring Program sets up a mentorship between international sports leaders and American executives with the goal of discussing gender equality and inclusion. 

Sports have contributed to a great deal of development in easing tension between countries, and although they aren’t the ultimate solution to the issues, it is nice being able to see sports as one of the areas where countries put their differences aside.

Take the 1998 World Cup, for example. Great tension existed between Iran and the U.S., but despite their faulted relationship, Iran’s players presented the U.S. team with bouquets of white flowers as a sign of peace. 

The U.S. mirrored this friendly gesture and presented Iran with U.S. Soccer Federation pennants. Although the exchange didn’t do much for the countries’ relationship, it showed how sports can foster mutual respect. 

Controversy with Iran has continued to this day between Iran officials and FIFA. For the first time since 1981, Iranian women were allowed to attend a soccer match in Iran in 2019. 

The sad thing: The pressure to lift the ban came about only after a 29-year-old Iranian woman, Sahar Khodayari, set herself on fire, ultimately dying in protest of the ban. 

FIFA’s demand to Iran to lift this ban is a great example of sports diplomacy, but equally an indicator that we still have a lot of progress left to achieve equal participation in sports.

Sports may not be the simple solution to complex world problems, but they offer a realm where countries are able to demonstrate peace and unity. These examples serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come, how much we have left to do and the powerful force that is sports diplomacy.

Regina Correa is a freshman writing about the world of sports, its intersection with culture and the stories that lie within in her column, “The Cultural Playbook,” which runs every other Monday.

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