2014 Will Be a Tumultuous Year for Sports Diplomacy


2014 promises two gigantic venues for sports diplomacy. Will it be a landmark year for the field, or a tragic one?

The 2014 Winter Olympic games begin in a little less than a month at the time of writing this article. They will be located in Sochi, Russia, which is a tiny Russian resort town on the Black Sea. Also this year, the 2014 World Cup kicks off this June. It will take place across Brazil in a multitude of cities across the country. Both of these events are significant because they are two of the largest (if not the largest) worldwide sport events. People from Albania to Zimbabwe will tune in to watch and cheer for their country. Both of these events are also embroiled in controversy.

Sochi is controversial because the Russian government is passing anti-LGBT laws and discriminating against the Russian LGBT community. At the same time, multiple teams coming to the Olympics either support LGBT rights or have LGBT athletes on the team. Brazil, on the other hand, is controversial for economic reasons. Brazil won the bid for the World Cup and has invested billions of dollars into building stadiums, increasing infrastructure and facilitating future tourism. All the while, the Brazilian economy has stagnated. It is no surprise that the Brazilian people are increasingly anxious about how the government is investing so much money into the World Cup when it would be better served to help the people of Brazil find relief and jobs.

These events are raising the international awareness of sports diplomacy, the use of sports, athletes, or sporting events to communicate or to help build relationships in situations where politics would be considered too controversial. For example, North Korea and South Korea play international friendly soccer matches against each other. They even mix up the rosters so that there are North Korean and South Korean players on each team. This allows for spectators to cheer for players of both Koreas, hopefully building personal bonds in the process. Sports diplomacy is not always handshakes and backslaps though; there are also negative consequences to using sports as a vehicle for communication.

Sports events take place in real time. That means the ability to censor and properly frame messages are limited. If a terrorist organization, for example, hacked the television feed or planted a bomb at a sporting event, the holders of that event are almost powerless to stop a highly publicized disaster from happening. Then, of course, there are the participants themselves: if an athlete celebrates with an obscene or offensive gesture, event planners are more-or-less helpless from preventing that sort of message of hate from filtering out into the world. You can add to that the reframing potential of messages. What may be a symbol or message of peace in one country can be misconstrued as racist or hateful in another. Clear, consistent and dependable messaging is a risky proposition at sports events. That has high implications for sports diplomacy.

Tangential to this concern is the risk for the organization hosting the event as well as those participating. Take for example incidents involving anti-Semitic gestures made by soccer players after scoring a goal. (This has happened twice in the last year.) When this happens, the player making the gesture is rightfully condemned by the press and public. It does not stop there though. Often, the team that employees the player as well as the overarching organization hosting the game receives part of the blame. The implications of a similar incident happening during a sports diplomacy event, when eyeballs from specific and often conflicting audiences are closely watching, are obviously huge.

Sporting events are also supposed to be apolitical. Even if an event is placed in the context of sports diplomacy, for much of the audience, it is just sport. This is evident in the fact that it is so hard to measure the effectiveness of sports diplomacy to any degree of accuracy, unless it is aimed at a specific and focused communication breakthrough. At the same time, using sports diplomacy can have a negative backlash. The war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969, dubbed the “football war” nonetheless, was a sparked by a soccer game. Tensions were already high at the time, and the sports diplomacy aimed at diffusing the situation backfired.

These negative aspects of sports diplomacy are subjective though. Take censorship. If an athlete wants to support LGBT rights at the Sochi Olympics, it would be very easy to make a gesture during a real-time broadcast. The Russian government or the Olympic Committee would have a tough time censoring the gesture before it is broadcast throughout the world.

In addition, sports diplomacy can provide a global audience to an issue that may not be well known. Minorities, the oppressed, and the downtrodden can create an environment with a global audience they can speak to directly. This is obviously positive. It allows for groups who do not typically get put into the limelight of international news to get exposure and, hopefully, international support.

Then there is the politics problems. Sports, as I mentioned earlier, is supposed to be apolitical. Sports diplomacy, though, is in its essence political. Yet, if there is any environment that can take a political topic and subdue those tensions just enough to bring two parties together, it’s sports. The athletes and coaches at the center of the event are not government-controlled. The audience does not have to tune in for political reasons either. Yet, sports diplomacy allows a government to direct two disparate audiences to the same focus point. That can be a powerful tool.

Finally, sports diplomacy events can be a coming out party to the world. Nelson Mandela used South Africa’s win at the Rugby World Cup; China used the 2008 Olympics; and Brazil will most definitely try to leverage the 2014 World Cup. There are multiple examples of people using sports diplomacy to announce themselves as a global power to the world. It gives countries a massive platform to really show what the country has to offer in the way of culture, infrastructure, business, and tourism.

2014 is going to a hell of a year for sports diplomacy. It is going to be fun to watch.


photo credit: REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk