shadow

As global advocates, athletes grab baton from flagging governments

Why We Wrote This

In our interconnected world, the diversity and reach of sports diplomacy is broadening. It's visible on issues such as climate change, where athletes and others see government falling short.

Caroline Seidel/picture-alliance/dpa/AP
American luge athlete Emily Sweeney, seen here at the international luge competition in Winterberg, Germany, Jan. 26, appeared in a video urging fans to take action to combat climate change.

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Governments have long used sports to achieve some diplomatic end. Perhaps best known is the “ping-pong diplomacy” between China and the United States under President Richard Nixon. Governments still employ sports diplomacy that way – think US programs to reach young Muslim “hearts and minds” through sports after 9/11.

But now athletes, who enjoy enhanced global stature, are pushing into new areas – gender equity, inter-ethnic harmony, human rights, climate change, and others – in some cases where sports organizations see government falling short. “As certain issues have become more pervasive and universal, sports and athletes have found their way from the sidelines into the center of efforts to address” those issues, says Vince Gennaro at NYU’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport.

“What other sector has provided so many social reformers, especially on racial and gender issues?” says Allen Hershkowitz, chairman of Geneva-based Sport and Sustainability International. “Sports organizations are stepping up where traditional diplomatic channels are failing,” he says, pointing to his experience assisting the New York Yankees with a program in Kenya to reduce deforestation, and NASCAR with mangrove restoration in Zimbabwe. “No other sector is as reforming and healing as sport,” he adds.

At the international luge competition in Winterberg, Germany, this month, some of the sport’s top athletes starred in a role outside their sleek, signature sleds.

Appearing in a video shot on a snowy slope and shown to thousands of attendees, athletes from the International Luge Federation aired their concerns about climate change.

“We’re the first generation of athletes affected by climate change,” they told viewers, “and the last generation able to do anything about it.”

In the video, the athletes offered testimonies of the individual steps they are taking to reduce their carbon footprints and suggested ways for luge fans to help combat the accelerating threat to the sport they love.

More than just a cry of alarm, the video’s key message to winter sports fans generally is, “Don’t be of the mindset that little things don’t matter,” says Cameron Myler, an assistant professor at New York University’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport. A decorated US luge athlete, Ms. Myler carried the Stars and Stripes at the opening ceremony of the 1994 Lillehammer Olympic Games.

“Use reusable water bottles,” she says, noting that the luge athletes call on their fans to join them in pledging to reduce carbon footprints by 50 percent over the coming decade.

The luge athletes’ video is one example of how sports diplomacy is expanding beyond the traditional ways in which major powers used sports over recent decades – often to further national-security interests.

Governments still employ sports diplomacy in that way – think US programs to reach young Muslim “hearts and minds” through sports after the 9/11 attacks.

But now that work is pushing increasingly into new areas – gender equity, inter-ethnic harmony, economic development, human rights, disabled accessibility, LGBTQ equity, and climate change – in some cases where international athletes, sports organizations, and nongovernmental organizations see government falling short.

“Sports are such a good way to bring about positive changes, especially through the kids,” says Stevy Worah-Ozimo, a Senegalese former basketball player who played at the collegiate level in the United States at North Carolina Central University before playing professionally around the world.

Now a sports envoy for the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, Mr. Worah-Ozimo has a finger in various private organizations that link youth sports camps in Africa, Asia, and the US with educational programs and broader human development priorities. Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng, who attended the academy that he partners with in Senegal, goes back every summer to work there, he adds. 

“We introduce environmental issues and sustainable development practices into our sports programs. For example we have introduced solar panels at our camps,” he says. Until four years ago the basketball camps in Senegal were for boys only. “Then a group of girls came to us and said, ‘We can do that, too.’ Now our camps are half-and-half boys and girls.”

Sports diplomacy’s broader reach

Many of these more recent initiatives are quite different from the traditional, top-down utilization of sports by governments to achieve some diplomatic end. Scholars point to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s recourse to baseball as a means of connecting with the Japanese people in the aftermath of World War II. Perhaps best known is the “ping-pong diplomacy” that played a role in the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the US under President Richard Nixon.

But experts in the field say a number of factors gaining steam in this century, from the rising influence of international nongovernmental organizations and global household sports stars to the spread of the internet, are broadening the diversity and reach of sports diplomacy.

“Over the last decade or so a couple of factors in particular have expanded the impact of sports and broadened our sense of what sports diplomacy is,” says Vince Gennaro, associate dean at NYU’s Tisch Institute, which recently hosted an international forum on sports and diplomacy.

“The first is globalization and a world that is so much better connected,” he says, “and second is social media and how it has enhanced the brand and global stature of athletes. As certain issues have become more pervasive and universal,” he adds, “sports and athletes have found their way from the sidelines into the center of efforts to address” those issues.

As one example of athletes getting into “pervasive” issues in new ways, Mr. Gennaro cites how Chelsea FC, the English football (soccer) club, launched a Say No To Antisemitism campaign when it realized the prejudice was showing up in increasingly virulent forms in part of the team’s fan base. Last summer Chelsea organized a trip to Auschwitz, a former Nazi concentration camp in Poland, for 150 staff and supporters. 

Individuals filling the gap

Gennaro says that in the US in particular, athletes and professional teams have increased their “diplomatic activities” over the past two years, as the Trump administration has sent a global signal that it is less interested in issues like the impact of climate change and human rights. “The last several years in this country have impelled individuals and nongovernmental organizations to step up and fill the gap,” he says.

Still, he says, such work can’t replace what governments do, but should be seen as complementing it. “Governments still matter, and there’s still great work going on in the State Department,” Gennaro says.

The State Department has utilized sports diplomacy at least as far back as the cold war, when athletes like Jesse Owens and Mal Whitfield were sent overseas as athlete-ambassadors to promote American values of freedom and democracy.

US sports diplomacy has expanded since then to include activities such as sports camps for youths and exchanges with “youth influencers” like coaches and local athletes, State Department officials say, while retaining the goal of furthering US national interests.

“The focus on furthering our national interests meant that our programs primarily emphasized the Muslim world after 9/11,” says Matt McMahon, director of the State Department’s sport diplomacy division. “But it has now expanded beyond that to work with youth and youth influencers around the world.”

Small budget at State

Calling sports “another important tool in the toolbox of American foreign policy,” he adds, “If we can help countries use sports to reach kids and empower girls and marginalized communities and the disabled, that can be a factor in building stability – and it’s certainly in the US interest to build a more stable world.”

The sports diplomacy division has always been small, a tiny fraction of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which manages much larger academic and cultural exchange programs, including the Fulbright scholarships.

But Mr. McMahon notes that the division’s budget increased slightly this year to about $6 million, and he emphasizes that the division’s programs have continued to diversify. (Indeed, the office moved heavily into gender equity under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.)

Last summer, for example, the division worked with the University of Montana to develop summer soccer camps in El Salvador and exchanges between American and Central American youth influencers. One goal: to provide kids with an alternative to gang activity.

With the US public focused on large groups of Central American families and unaccompanied children moving north to seek asylum from pervasive violence back home, the camps were seen as one small way to address the factors prompting people to emigrate. “One idea behind this new program was to provide young people in El Salvador with alternatives to gang participation and behavior,” McMahon says.

An ability to reform, and heal

For some experts, such innovations as soccer camps to address gang violence – or a public service announcement by luge athletes about climate change – suggest the enduring value of sports as a tool for unlocking global change.

“What other sector has provided so many social reformers, especially on racial and gender issues?” says Allen Hershkowitz, an environmental scientist and chairman of Sport and Sustainability International, a Geneva-based nonprofit that leverages the influence of sports to promote sustainable communities.

Insisting that “Sports organizations are stepping up where traditional diplomatic channels are failing,” Dr. Hershkowitz says professional sports teams were “among the first to pick up on” the UN’s sustainable development goals. As examples, he points to his experience assisting the New York Yankees with a program in Kenya to reduce deforestation, and NASCAR with mangrove restoration projects in Zimbabwe.

Noting that surveys suggest an astounding 80 percent of the world’s people follow sports, he adds, “No other sector is as reforming and healing as sport.”

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