Rate this article
(no votes)
 (0 votes)
Share this article
Tatiana Zonova

Doctor of Political Science, Professor of the Diplomacy Department of the MGIMO University

Sport diplomacy is often regarded as an integral part of cultural and public diplomacy. International sports competitions serve better mutual understanding between the peoples of different countries. They add important touches to the creation of a country’s international image. That said, very often sporting events are made ideologically biased and used as an instrument of political pressure.
Over the last three decades sport has been substantially commercialized. The market of players’ transfer from one team to the other has become transnational. As a result, the demand for specialists in the field of sport diplomacy, international sport management and marketing has been constantly growing.

Sport diplomacy is an integral part of cultural and public diplomacy. International sport competitions serve better mutual understanding and display common aspirations of the peoples of different countries and continents. Perfect shape of sportsmen, their yearning for victory, their ability not only to win but to also lose with dignity help create favorable image of a country.

Political leaders too are sports fans

Political leaders playing the part of a sports fan successfully implement summit diplomacy. The meetings of V. Putin with G. W. Bush during the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 obviously helped to prevent even more dramatic scenario of Russian leadership’s reaction to Georgia’s hostility. In 2008 and 2009 presidents of Armenia and Turkey met at soccer matches both in Yerevan and Ankara. In 2011 the rendezvous of Indian and Pakistani prime-ministers made mass-media speak about the so-called “cricket diplomacy” as a new stage of bilateral cooperation.

Supporting their teams at the European football championship of 2012 presidents of Poland and Ukraine pointed out that the contacts between the two countries in different fields including sport could be very fruitful.

Photo: Flickr / newsweekpakistan
"Cricket diplomacy"

From time to time there have been attempts made to politicize sports competitions. For example, in the run-up to the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London some British politicians having learnt that at the opening ceremony the Russian delegation would be headed by Premier D. Medvedev accused V. Putin of preconceived attitude to Great Britain. Mr. Putin labeled it “complete rubbish” and said that he intended to attend the judo competitions.

Sport has undoubtedly become an important factor of the diplomatic dialogue. On the threshold of the London Olympic Games R. Miliory the president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly urged heads of states, parliamentarians and other state officials to take advantage of sport diplomacy for the facilitation of talks.

Diplomacy contributes its instruments to sport

With respect to the relevance of sport diplomacy some countries have created the post of a sport attaché at the International Olympic Committee. For example, the job description of a French sport attaché includes the establishment and maintenance of contacts between the National Olympic Committee and the IOC as well as the collection of relevant information. A sport attaché has the responsibility of organizing high-level visits, receiving sport delegations and taking care of creating necessary conditions for the work of mass media representatives. He is also in charge of preparing cultural programs for the Games participants and circulation of information materials about the hosting country.

The most important task of sport diplomacy is the work with sportsmen and their fans aimed at advocating tolerance and mutual respect in their interaction. It happens very often that outbreaks of nationalism take place during some sports competitions. For example, the fighting between Russian and Polish football fans in the streets of Warsaw once again proved the need of preventive diplomacy. In particular, social networks promptly used by diplomats could be able to duly expose the established negative stereotypes of mutual perception.

Sport records, Olympic achievements of national teams, perfect organization of the Games and even the very right to hold the Olympiad have become the instruments of conjuring up a positive image of a country. Much attention is also given to sport in bilateral relations. The joint Russia-USA presidential commission includes a task force on education, culture, mass media and sport issues. Under the auspices of the working group youth sport exchanges leading to better relations between Russian and US young people are accomplished.

From the US side it is the education and culture Bureau of the US Department of State that is in charge of sport issues. An international program of sport diplomacy and exchange has been developed inside the Bureau. Sport exchange aimed at achieving better mutual understanding is regarded as a manifestation of smart power diplomacy and as а contribution to the creation of a global community.

Фото: Thaindian News
George Bush on Olympic Games,
Beejing, 2008

In accordance with the main provisions of the program international contacts facilitate the transformation of sport achievements into life success, the acquisition of team methods of work, the development of management skills, the promotion of healthy lifestyle and access of disabled people to sport. Annually, numerous American sport non-profit organizations receive grants within a framework of this program. In 2005 the Department of State awarded 80 grants, more than 130 US sportsmen visited 40 countries of the world and over 700 young athletes from 50 countries came to the United States.

It’d be the best bet for Russian sport agencies that post on their websites purely professional information to borrow some of the US experience in sport diplomacy attaching much attention to humanitarian issues.

Does sport always mean peace?

Since the ancient times the Olympic Games has always been the symbol of peace. That said, international sports competitions have occasionally been strongly politicized. With the growth of its popularity and international weight the Olympiads have turned into the arena of competition not only between sportsmen and national teams but between the states that do not shy away from using sport as a lever of exercising pressure on the policy of this or that country.

There was the time when the escalation of tension in relations between India and Pakistan forced their national teams either to hold competitions in third countries or cancel them as was the case after the terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2009. In the wake of the nuclear program adoption by Pyongyang at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing national teams of DPRK and South Korea in violation of the adopted procedure marched in different columns.

Olympic Games 1980, Moscow

Some countries resort even to boycotting the Olympic Games. Protesting against sending Soviet troops to Afghanistan 65 countries including USA, Federal Republic of Germany, Canada, Japan, Turkey, Romania and China demonstratively boycotted Moscow Olympic Games in 1980. At the opening and closing ceremonies many teams participating in the Olympiad had to refuse from national symbols and take part in sports competitions under the IOC’s flag. Three days before the opening of Moscow Olympiad athletes from 29 countries gathered in Philadelphia for the “Boycott Olympic Games”. In 1984 USSR and other members of the Warsaw Treaty Organization responded symmetrically by boycotting summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles and held their independent competitions under the name of “Druzhba (Friendship) – 84”.

In 2012 the European Parliament adopted a resolution urging to withdraw from Belarus the license for holding Ice Hockey World Championship. Despite that the Congress of International Ice Hockey Federation at its meeting in Helsinki on March 18 confirmed Minsk to be the venue of the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship. It can’t be ruled out that a number of states may resort to boycotting the championship.

The opponents of the boycott believe it inadmissible to lump together sport and politics and call the effectiveness of such actions into question. The ideologization of sports events, according to them, does not allow sportsmen to compete with other worthy athletes and gain the much desired victory and world recognition. The boycott advocates including some IOC members are sure that boycotting sport events draws attention to the situation in some countries where human rights are abused and main principles of international law are disregarded. They invite us to remember that after the Second World War the IOC had to apologize for its decision taken in the 1930-s giving green light to holding the Olympic Games in fascist Germany. The dispute between the proponents and opponents of the boycott practices hasn’t been over yet.

Sport business model

The Olympic Mascots, London 2012

Sport diplomacy is also kind of business. Over the last three decades sport has been substantially commercialized. According to some estimates the world market of sporting goods amounts to $100 billion per year. The market of players transfer from one team to the other has grown transnational. Players can be bought and sold, leased or exchanged as it was in ancient Rome with gladiators. European football clubs spend up to $2 billion annually, and franchises of professional sport are listed at major stock exchanges. Sponsors’ logos are placed on the athletes’ jerseys while TV companies pay huge sums for the license to broadcast sports competitions [1].

In our turbulent world it’s necessary to invest billions in security of the Olympic Games. In 2001 the USA spent about $50 billion on the war in Iraq while today a couple of weeks of London Olympiad will cost approximately $40 billion with practically one half of this sum spent on maintaining security during the Olympic games. According to the estimates of the Russian Football Union Russia will spend on the hosting of the 2018 Football World Cup а about $8 billion, according to others’ – even $15 billion. One might suggest that the security costs will exceed those of the sporting event proper.

Training of sport managers high on the agenda

Vladimir Putin in Judo Academy, 2012

Recently the demand for professionals in the field of sport diplomacy, international sport management and marketing has been constantly growing. Most prominent schools for training such kind of specialists are located in the USA. In Europe the UK and Switzerland are acknowledged as leaders in professional training of sport managers.

In 2006 upon the initiative of the Diplomacy and Philosophy Departments’ Heads MGIMO University with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia successfully launched the syllabus “Olympic Diploma 2007” aimed at training future leaders of international management in the field of sport diplomacy. The level of our graduates’ qualification and their approach to work were highly appreciated by the leadership of the “Sochi-2014” Bid Committee. In 2009 in conformity with the Memorandum of Understanding signed by International Olympic Committee, Organizing Committee “Sochi-2014” and National Olympic Committee of Russia and by force of the Russian Government Instruction an autonomous non-profit organization “Russian International Olympic University” went into operation. The number of schools training bachelors and masters of sport diplomacy is constantly growing.

It must be said in conclusion that sport diplomacy is gathering momentum. As any other type of diplomacy it pursues the goal of building bridges and achieving mutual understanding, countering nationalistic sentiments, overcoming entrenched stereotypes and improving international image of a country. Contemporary sport demands more and more managers and marketing specialists who are well equipped with professional knowledge in the field of sport business and who successfully promote in the world the ideas of sport. And it is relevant higher educational establishments which have included into their curricula “Sport diplomacy” subject that are called upon training these professionals.

1. Slack T. The Commercialisation of Sport . N.Y.: Routledge, 2004.

Rate this article
(no votes)
 (0 votes)
Share this article

Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
For business
For researchers
For students