The borderless power of sports

In Iran and China, the globalization of sports – and its values – is helping transcend frictions over religion and nationalism.

Protesters from Iran displayed this banner at a 2018 international soccer match in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

On Thursday, in a Tehran stadium whose name means freedom in Farsi, thousands of Iranian women will get a taste of freedom they have long wished for. For the first time in 40 years, women will be able to attend a soccer match in Iran, the result of a stern demand by FIFA, the governing body of international soccer, on the country’s ruling clerics.

Soon after FIFA’s order last month, tickets for women to attend this World Cup match between Iran and Cambodia were sold out. To be sure, the women in Azadi Stadium will be segregated from men. And they will be watched over by 150 female police. Yet the historic event is a good example of how the globalization of sports, from soccer to basketball, is helping people transcend conflicts over religion, race, or national interests. It fulfills a key goal of the Olympic charter: to create “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”

A similar impact of globalized sports is playing out in China after Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, tweeted his support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

China’s reaction was to limit the broadcasts of two preseason NBA games scheduled to be held in the country. The league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, at first sought to apologize for the effects of the tweet on many Chinese. But then, under pressure, he finally affirmed a core principle that comes with international sports. “We will protect our employees’ freedom of speech,” Mr. Silver said.

China’s cancellation of the broadcasts is unfortunate, he added, “but if that’s the consequences of us adhering to our values, we still feel it’s critically important we adhere to those values.” His confidence in the NBA’s future in China is probably based on the intense interest in basketball among the Chinese. An estimated 300 million Chinese play the sport, or almost the same as the U.S. population.

Sports, with its demand for collaboration in the midst of competition, has a way of quietly entering through the backdoor in a world fraught with high-stakes tensions and risks of war. By its nature, athletics helps nurture both teamwork and the worth of each individual in achieving excellence, regardless of the surrounding politics.

Sports help build bridges. And for women in Iran, that bridge is the right to enter “freedom” stadium and enjoy a game as equals to men.

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