The Mixed Record of Sports Diplomacy

East Germany was a perennial powerhouse at winter games, including the 1988 Calgary Games where it won gold and bronze in the women’s 1000 meters Speedskating event.
East Germany was a perennial powerhouse at winter games, including the 1988 Calgary Games where it won gold and bronze in the women’s 1000 meters Speedskating event. Mike Powell/Getty Images

While sports may temporarily transcend divisions in society, events like the Olympics rarely serve to advance countries’ diplomatic aims.

February 6, 2018
11:27 am (EST)

East Germany was a perennial powerhouse at winter games, including the 1988 Calgary Games where it won gold and bronze in the women’s 1000 meters Speedskating event.
East Germany was a perennial powerhouse at winter games, including the 1988 Calgary Games where it won gold and bronze in the women’s 1000 meters Speedskating event. Mike Powell/Getty Images
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

For more CFR coverage of the Olympics, click here.

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The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea can create a positive vibe on the Korean peninsula, but the event is unlikely to yield lasting diplomatic gains, says Jonathan Grix, professor of sports policy at Manchester Metropolitan University. While the impact of sports on diplomacy may be limited, he says, events like the Olympics continue to attract countries for their value in public diplomacy. There have clearly been instances where participating countries boosted their reputations, he says. Sometimes, however, the effect is ephemeral, or nationalism becomes a vehicle for “interstate rivalry played out on the sporting pitch,” Grix says.

How significant is it that North Korea is participating in the Pyeongchang Olympics?

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If you look at North Korean policies and recent escalations, this is a good way of just taking a breather. Clearly this is, on the whole, a positive development. But 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. Such agreements offer the chance to steer public opinion and the global media gaze toward something more positive whilst the negative things continue behind the scenes. Even North Korea’s relative success in qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup was short-lived with rumors of severe punishment for the team after they failed to progress beyond the first round.  

How have states used sports to try to advance diplomacy?

There are two or three ways that sports can be used for public diplomacy. The first one is in hosting a sports mega-event like the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup. But these can also include more regional events like the Pan American Games, the Commonwealth Games, or the Asian Games. The hosting of a major sports-event with global appeal is one major way states attempt to showcase themselves, increase their international prestige, and accrue soft power.

Another way is for states who do not host sports mega-events to use elite sports success to raise their profile. An obvious example would be East Germany [before reunification in 1990] and how success on the sporting field aided East Germany’s recognition as a separate state from West Germany in the 70s. Its athletes were called “diplomats in track suits,” as they were seen as excellent ambassadors on running tracks around the world. Cuba does this too. Though perhaps best known for exporting doctors as a form of soft power, it has also showcased boxing and baseball stars.

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These major sporting events are essentially about power, exerting power, and showcasing your nation.

Finally, states can combine these two methods: achieving elite sports success and hosting a major sporting event. However, there is little research that underpins the notion that being a top performing country correlates with added international prestige or diplomatic power. This has typically been something that advanced capitalist states have done, but increasingly emerging states are looking for success on the podium when they host events.

The so-called BRICS countries (a group of large, emerging states seeking to collectively raise their status) have all hosted a major sporting event: Brazil had double-host status (2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics), as does Russia with the 2014 Winter Olympics and the upcoming 2018 World Cup; India hosted a disastrous Commonwealth Games in 2010; China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics [and will host the 2022 winter games]; and South Africa had the 2010 World Cup. All were hosted with the purpose of putting the respective countries on the map, in particular those countries with a questionable past.

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How successful have big event hosts been in recent years?

I’ll start off with an example: China’s 2008 Beijing Olympics. It is not straight forward whether it was successful or not. On the one hand it highlighted all that is bad about China—the banning of the use of the internet and trying to control protests like those of Tibetan monks along the route of the Olympic torch. People who maybe were not aware of the human rights issues in China were then made aware of them. That’s a negative.

However, the jury is still out on whether China’s Olympics were successful for its overall image and place in the world. The 2008 event was a coming-out party, with China saying “we are open for business.” That being said, a lot of its sporting venues are now unused. At the same time, it should be pointed out that much of the rhetoric around legacies of sporting events focuses on how the infrastructure will be accessible to people and a lot of this is nonsense. One doesn’t want to become cynical, but these major sporting events are essentially about power, exerting power, and showcasing your nation.

A more positive example is Germany’s FIFA World Cup in 2006. It was one of the most successful sports mega-events in terms of changing a state’s national image abroad. Germany’s image had been colored by its Nazi past and the idea that Germany wants to dominate Europe. Among the striking aspects of that World Cup was that they struggled to find infrastructure to invest in because theirs was already in such good shape. So Germany spent the funds and resources on public diplomacy efforts. The foreign office put an awful lot of money into creating positive public diplomacy outcomes. They hired people who spoke lots of different languages and ran all sorts of efforts to send out a positive message and change the minds of how citizens of other countries saw Germany. That is public diplomacy.

On the other hand, the case of Qatar and the 2022 World Cup has been an almost unmitigated public relations disaster. For example, Qatar has the Kafala system where migrant laborers are building the infrastructure for the World Cup. The workers have their documentation and passports taken off them, are unable to leave, and are often not paid.

What have been some historical successes of sports diplomacy?

Ping-pong diplomacy [a U.S. ping pong team invited to China in 1971] played a classic icebreaker role. It was not actually about the sport but about the easing of previously tense relations. Interestingly, the role of the competition itself was almost peripheral. A U.S. team (ranked twenty-fourth in the world at the time) was invited to play against world champions; they were never going to beat China, though the Chinese players occasionally let the Americans win a game out of “friendship.” Sport was temporarily robbed of its unpredictability. The Chinese-U.S. face-off was a nice gesture, but there wasn’t going to be an upset because it would have ruined the whole thing. Sports as diplomacy only works in such staged cases if it follows a logical pattern.

There are a few other positive examples. After World War II baseball games between the United States and Japan were instrumental in reengaging Japan into the international sphere. Japan was quite isolated in the postwar period and now there is a long history of baseball in Japan linked with America. Unfortunately though, there are more examples of negative outcomes from sports than positive ones.

What are some negative outcomes?

For starters, nationalism is another side of sport. George Orwell was correct when he pointed to the dark side of national-level sport in an essay in 1945. Sport—in particular team sport—is bound up with “national narratives,” that is, the stories nations tell about themselves. Thus, the English defeat of Germany in the 1966 World Soccer Cup is a cornerstone of English identity and self-understanding; for over thirty years after this game, each meeting between the two national sides would be preceded in the English press with references to World War II, Hitler, and Nazism, despite the fact that Germany was one of the most successful democracies globally in the postwar period.

Sports as diplomacy only works in such staged cases if it follows a logical pattern.

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. The 1972 U.S.-Soviet Union Olympic men’s basketball final is another example. Repeated inbounds plays and a clock controversy led the U.S. team to protest the results and players to refuse to accept their silver medals. In some cases, sport is reigniting interstate rivalries rather than being used for diplomatic means. For some, sport like this is simply “war by other means”; for others, sporting rivalry is preferable to real-world conflicts.

Olympic Games have also faced boycotts. The classic boycott example was Moscow’s 1980 Summer Olympics. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher advised the UK squad to boycott the games because it was not in the UK’s interest. (The prime minister does not have the power to stop or prevent an athletic delegation from going). They all went anyway however, but the United States and many other countries did in fact boycott. [Editor’s Note: Sixty-six countries boycotted the Moscow games over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979.] These boycotts were damaging for the Soviet Union’s international prestige at the time. And then the Soviets staged their own boycott four years later during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. [Editor’s note: fourteen countries, mostly from the communist bloc, joined the Soviet Union’s boycott of the 1984 games.]

What is the role of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in sports diplomacy?

The IOC has been instrumental in starting a number of political arguments. The IOC has recognized states that have not yet been internationally recognized by the United Nations; including recognizing East Germany before anyone else even thought about it; it also recognized Kosovo in 2014 [the former Serbian province has not yet received UN recognition]. By granting states IOC recognition, they could compete in the Olympics. These are very political moves that often act as a precursor to diplomatic recognition and come from a body that is one of the least democratic that you can think of. Additionally, when a country wishes to host an Olympic event, it has to subscribe to specific rules set down by the IOC. The legal infrastructure of sovereign states has to change to accommodate such rules, including labor and taxation regulations. You thereby have a situation whereby an undemocratic, unelected body can tell a national, sovereign state what to do in the name of sport.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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