Public Diplomacy and Global Communication 2014b

What impact has Sports have in the realms of Diplomacy

Sports and Politics have had an uncomfortable relationship, which dates all the way back from the first modern day Olympics back in 1896, to modern day Football, the FIFA World Cup. Sports has been used as a tool to use to break down barriers which normal diplomacy is unable to do. There have been famous occasions, such as the Ping Pong match between China and the US; as well as the Apartheid Sports ban in South Africa: where they were denied any Rugby and Cricket and even the Olympics. The Olympics has been much politicised by stressing the importance of the flag, and how nations, some which are at war, can come together and unite every 4 years under one flag.

The Olympic flag is carried during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium July 27, 2012.     REUTERS/David Gray (BRITAIN  - Tags: OLYMPICS SPORT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

The Olympic flag is carried during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium July 27, 2012. REUTERS/David Gray (BRITAIN – Tags: OLYMPICS SPORT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

One of the most famous rivalries between India and Pakistan at Cricket is consistently used as a starting point of diplomatic talks. Ever since the Mumbai bombings in 2008, relationships between these two nations have been frosty. A lot of blame and anger has surfaced in both nations, with diplomatic ties being non-existent. It wasn’t until the Cricket World Cup in 2011, where India and Pakistan were to meet in the semi-final, when concerted efforts were made to regain meaningful diplomatic ties. Only then did Prime Minister Singh invited the Pakistani leader Zardari for talks in India. What this did was open the door for more dialogue between these nations.

Cricket diplomacy

This also led to a historic moment last year, when the new Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi got elected, and invited for the first time the Pakistan leader Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration. It doesn’t mean that all the problems have been sorted; however, what cricket did was open up a channel of negotiation and the possibility of establishing diplomatic ties, which would have been harder to reach, if such a sporting event had not taken place.

This is further evident in the famous so-called “ping pong diplomacy” match between the US and China. What was fascinating about this was, we were in a different era when the Cold War was at its peak. The US were fighting in Vietnam; and China was a very closed, secretive, and isolated communist state. A match between the US and China in Beijing took place on the back of the world championship in Japan 1971. The connotations of this invitation went well beyond the context of sport. It was seen as an invitation for the West, and partially America, to enter China and break this isolationist policy, developed over many decades. It opened up a channel between the US and China. The slogan of the match was called “Friendship First, Competition Second”.

This was really significant, as prior to this, China did not send anyone outside their nation to compete or travel across the world. Thus, with their participation, many people were enabled to glimpse China for the first time. What also played a significant part in this was the friendship and respect between American and the Chinese Table Tennis players. It gave the opportunity for both nations to start diplomatic talks, which began in February 1972 when President Nixon travelled to Beijing for a week-long visit.

China US relations

However, Sports Diplomacy does have some major limitations. The FIFA World Cup has spawned many issues and scandals both on and off the field. Many governments view hosting major sporting events as a way to improve nation-branding. But Critics such as Simon Anholt do not believe that sporting events actually affect the national brand, and in certain circumstances, it makes it worse. He would argue that the example of South Africa hosting the FIFA World Cup actually did more harm to the country, as images of a nation of poverty and crime were beamed across the world.

This message overshadowed the more positive one of South Africa being this vibrant new world economic power, which is looking to propel itself and use the World Cup as a springboard. FIFA has also been embroiled in an alleged big corruption case, with the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar. There have been over 1000 migrants dying, as a result of the construction work in Qatar, and the impact has been seen in a negative light. With the corruption scandal deepening and the FIFA president stepping down, the so called “beautiful game” has actually had the opposite effect to effective diplomacy- with deepening divides between each continent and the host countries in 2018 and 2222.

In conclusion, it is evident that Sports Diplomacy certainly has a place in trying to help reach a starting point for negotiations. It certainly does not provide all the answers to solving problems; and, as mentioned overleaf, can be a hindrance at times. However, it can be used as a good starting point for negotiations to begin. It can break down the opening barriers and give a reason for countries to start talking; and, I believe, it is becoming a more important tool for diplomacy. It has the scope to be used more often.


Iftikhar. M (2014) The role of cricket in the India-Pakistan conflict

Hashim. A (2014) Timeline: India-Pakistan relations (A timeline of the rocky relationship between the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours.)

Pidd. H (2012) Pakistan and India resume cricket diplomacy with bilateral match series (Series of five Pakistan-India matches, the first since Mumbai attacks in 2008, could help thaw relations between countries)

 DeVoss. D (2002) Ping-Pong Diplomacy (Blending statecraft and sport, table tennis matches between American and Chinese athletes set the stage for Nixon’s breakthrough with the People’s Republic)

Griffin. N (2014) Table for Two (Countries) (‘Ping-Pong Diplomacy,)

BBC Article (2014) Narendra Modi inauguration: Pakistan PM Sharif invited

Macramalla. E (2015) Why Sepp Blatter Stepped Down As FIFA President

Johnston. Y (2010) Simon Anholt’s view on Brand South Africa is, well, wrong


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