Nelson Mandela once said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people…sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”

Sport is one of the great commonalities of human beings. More people watch or play sports than almost any other human activity. Sport reflects and affects ideas of race, sex, class, as well as national pride and identity. Sport can change a country’s “brand”, and, as I’ve learned from my career, sports can be an effective tool in the diplomat’s playbook.

Growing up in a middle class section of Greater Los Angeles, sport was a central part of my daily life. I played football, basketball, baseball and tennis, swam in the public pool, collected baseball cards, and attended games of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Rams and UCLA Bruins. In high school, playing varsity basketball and tennis brought me the school’s scholar athlete award.

At university, other interests like Civil Rights and the Vietnam War seemed more “serious”. I stopped playing sports and rarely watched games–it wasn’t until I had a family with children that sports again became part of my daily life. Serving as soccer coach for 6 year-olds, watching my sons’ basketball games, cheering at my daughter’s gymnastic competitions, and playing in a regular men’s basketball games and tennis matches became my routine.

During the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, my son and I watched an exhibition baseball game in which Nicaragua was playing, while President Reagan was clandestinely trying to overthrow the country’s government. My op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times “Let ‘Baseball Diplomacy’ win a big one for peace,” on using sports as a way to reach out to Latin nations with which the US had conflicts (including a proposal for major league expansion teams for Havana and Washington, DC.) was placed in the Congressional Record by Congressman Mel Levine; it was cited by other prominent politicians, such as Bill Clinton.

When President Clinton appointed me as the US Ambassador to Finland, I had the opportunity to practice sports diplomacy. Playing tennis on Sundays with leading Finnish diplomats was part of my diplomat’s tool kit. Esko Aho, the Prime Minister of Finland, challenged me to a friendly game of doubles. Aho brought a ringer as his partner—a Finnish Davis Cup star—and I came with my political officer, but it was all good fun (we let the Prime Minister win, of course), and it helped to smooth my relations with him and his Centre Party colleagues. My regular Sunday tennis game led to a friendship with Max Jakobson, Finland’s version of George Kennan, the so-called inventor of “containment theory.” Max had served as the Finnish ambassador to the UN (and was almost made UN Secretary General, only to be vetoed by the Soviet Union). And when Henry Kissinger visited Finland, he asked for a private meeting with Max—and I hosted a breakfast at my residence for the three of us. Later, Kissinger reciprocated by hosting a dinner at his Manhattan home for the President of Finland, when we came on an official visit. Tennis diplomacy had, in my personal experience, clearly paid off.

With the ambassador as point guard, US embassy Helsinki’s basketball team competed in a Finnish industrial league during which we met businessmen from a number of Finnish companies, leading to useful contacts for visiting American businessmen. After graduating from university in California, my eldest son came to Finland to play professionally. Attending his games, local officials often challenged the US ambassador to diplomatic free-throw shooting contests at half time, which the Finnish press covered favorably.

The most effective example of sports diplomacy is ping-pong diplomacy between the US and the People’s Republic of China in 1971.

Enthusiastically greeting American professional and college sports teams, attending the games and inviting the teams to my official residence along with their Finnish competitors was another use of sports diplomacy. I attended professional hockey matches with the Prime Minister, and greeted the US national hockey team when they came to play. The team presented me with an official jersey with my last name on it; I was also honored to open the championship game in the Finnish American football league at the Olympic stadium. There were, however, touchy diplomatic issues­—one such incident occurred when African-American players in the Finnish basketball league were attacked by drunken fans—which required my attention. The culprits later apologized, saying that they had not realized that the players were Americans; they thought they were African immigrants. My public statement that such brutish behavior was wrong regardless of the country of origin seemed to go over well with the Finnish public. These experiences as the top US diplomat in Finland convinced me of the impact of sports on the public and international sphere.

Breaking The Ice

Returning to teach at Occidental College after my diplomatic service, I continued to explore sport’s impact on international relations. At its most ambitious, sports diplomacy has been used to try to bring together national adversaries. In 1934, baseball great Babe Ruth and a team of US all-stars made a good will tour of Japan. The hope of the sponsors was that the tour might reduce tensions between Japan and the US. Over 100,000 fans cheered the Babe and his teammates as they paraded along the Ginza. The US team played games in twelve cities, and US Ambassador Joseph Grew called Ruth one of the most effective Goodwill Ambassadors ever sent to Japan. Although the trip stimulated the development of Japanese baseball, US-Japanese diplomacy did not follow and war broke out. During WWII, Japanese soldiers were heard to yell across battle lines, “Babe Ruth, go to Hell!”

The most effective example of sports diplomacy is ping-pong diplomacy between the US and the People’s Republic of China in 1971. While often cited as a case of the power of sports to bring enemies together, it is, as evident in both the above and following examples, less an exemplar than an exception. The circumstances were right for US-China rapprochement and ping-pong diplomacy. What is not commonly recognized is that this was a Chinese initiative. Zhou En-lai, wanting to escape the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and to advance the feelers from the Nixon administration, arranged for the US ping -pong team playing in Japan to be invited to China. After this highly publicized visit and exhibition games (which the much better Chinese players let the US occasionally win), the Chinese team then visited the US, touring Disneyland, riding on a Memphis steamboat, and meeting local officials, although pro-Taiwan groups and anti-communist groups protested.

These highly publicized visits, well-described in Nicholas Griffin’s extensively researched book, Ping-Pong Diplomacy, prepared public opinion in both countries for the dramatic meeting of President Nixon and Chairman Mao, and the subsequent signing of the Shanghai Accord which led to formal normalization under President Carter. Sports diplomacy worked well in the context of serious diplomacy by both governments’ efforts towards normalization of relations.

Subsequent attempts to play the sports card at the highest levels of diplomacy have been less effective. During the Clinton administration, the President tried baseball diplomacy with Cuba, approving a 1999 trip by the Baltimore Orioles to play in Havana. Clinton also used wrestling diplomacy with Iran, sending the US team to compete in Tehran. Unfortunately, differences between the two countries and internal politics were not conducive to rapprochement through sports diplomacy.

Similar attempts at sports diplomacy have also proved elusive to other nations. In 2008, Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, visited Armenia to attend the Turkey-Armenia qualifying soccer match in Yerevan. It was the first time that a modern Turkish leader had visited Armenia, and it seemed to signal a new willingness from both countries to resolve differences and normalize relations. International press coverage hailed it as “football diplomacy,” but the issues of the Armenian “genocide” and Nagorno-Karabakh proved too difficult, and the opening was not followed with diplomatic success. Such examples show that replicating the success of US-Chinese ping-pong diplomacy seems unlikely and, unfortunately, a rarity in international relations. Far more common are the ways in which the globalization of sport increasingly plays a soft power role in international affairs, a role that has expanded following sports’ growing reach to all corners of the world.

Raising The National Profile

At the 1964 Olympics, the first broadcast globally, Japan used the opportunity to showcase itself as a comeback nation after the devastation of WWII, and to presage its rise as an economic force in the global economy. In 2020, Japan will again host the Summer Olympics, this time sending a message of renewal after economic recession and devastation by tsunami and nuclear meltdown. South Korea’s hosting of the World Cup (jointly with Japan) in 2002 was an effort to announce its arrival as a serious globalized country. Even more so was China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics when Beijing wanted to change its national image from Tiananmen Square to the Bird’s Nest stadium. The narrative of the opening evening’s ceremonies was a carefully constructed set of soft power images of Chinese civilization, emphasizing its ancient cultural achievements and neatly side-stepping its Maoist past.

A potential problem with hosting a mega sports event in today’s globalized media environment is that the host country cannot control the message received. One recent example clearly elucidates this: Russia hosted the winter Olympics this year and has won the right to host the World Cup in 2018. Putin tried to turn the winter games into a triumph for Russian soft power. More than US$50 billion was spent by the Russian government and Russian companies on preparing and hosting the games. Intense security measures prevented a terrorist incident, but initial press coverage focused on the mixed quality of Russian hotels, the round-up and killing of Sochi’s stray dogs, and the exorbitant costs. The opening night’s cultural and musical performance, not unlike that in Beijing, presented the story of Russian civilization, not Soviet communism (except for a few images of tractors and steel mills), focusing on famous Russian composers and authors. It seemed that Putin had pulled off a soft power success, only to sully it almost immediately with his use of hard power in Crimea and Ukraine; deteriorating living conditions as well as human rights concerns were also similarly corrosive to the ideal image that Putin had attempted to paint through its hosting of the global event.

The world watched as Brazil prepared for this summer’s World Cup and then the Olympics in 2016. When Brazil was awarded these events, the country’s President Lula hailed the moment as the arrival of Brazil as a global player. Press stories leading up to the World Cup focused on the lack of readiness of many of the facilities, on the sorry state of Brazil’s hotel and transportation infrastructure, and on the protests which broke out over the costs of the sport facilities in contrast to the state of Brazilian education or transportation. The New York Times reported that preparations for the Olympics are the furthest behind schedule in modern Olympic history. Brazil might well come to regret the global spot light that comes with hosting these international sporting events.

Individual sports stars and the success of national teams, moreover, can also raise a nation’s profile. The success of Japanese baseball players such as Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki in the US has been important to improving Japan’s international image. Two Japanese relievers, Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa, played highly visible roles in the Boston Red Sox’s winning the World Series in 2013. In Los Angeles, a cohort of 10,000 Korean Americans attend Dodger stadium whenever South Korean pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu takes the mound, and millions more watch as the games are televised live in his home country. The Dodger’s first great Mexican pitcher Fernando Valenzuela lifted Mexican pride as “Fernandomania” took hold on both sides of the border.

Asian women athletes such as South Korean golf star So Yeon Ryu, or Shansahn Feng, the first woman from China to win an LPGA tournament, and her rival Taiwan star Yani Tseng, as well as the Japanese women’s national soccer team have altered the image of Asian women. Chinese teenage golfer Guan Tianlang played at the Masters, and exemplifies the change in Chinese sports development from a state run system to the private country clubs of the rising middle class. International tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams are a loud and clear global message of the rise of female athletes in the United States. The national pride and media attention that sports figures receive allow such athletes to become prominent spokespeople for public issues, and of course, to endorse commercial products for the global market.

Conversely, the bad behavior of sports stars can tarnish a country’s soft power. Lance Armstrong’s admission to drug use and the suspension of Yankee Alex Rodriguez for using performance-enhancing drugs did not improve America’s image abroad. The refusal of the owner of the Washington Redskins football team to change its name and the racist sentiments expressed by Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers basketball team, reminded a globalized audience that the US still struggles with its racial heritage. Hooliganism and racist incidents at soccer matches in Italy and France similarly detract from these countries’ soft power.

The intrinsic nature of sports and its ability to focus attention on an individual and his or her nation has lent it its far-reaching implications in diplomacy. As seen above, these implications can either enhance or detract from a nation’s international image.

Selling the National Brand

In the post-Cold War era, sport has become globalized, wedded to global commercial interests that promote the national brand as well as the bottom line.

While lecturing for the State Department in China in the late 90s, I would ask students who they thought was the most popular American. An overwhelming number of students named Michael Jordan, whose iconic picture on Nike ads adorned the walls of Chinese restaurants and shops. Today, Kobe Bryant and Jeremy Lin are global superstars in China and in the rest of Asia and whose games are broadcast live in China, Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. The first Chinese star to make it in the NBA was Yao Ming, hailed by President Bill Clinton as “a symbol of China’s turning from an inward-looking nation to an outward-looking nation.” The NBA has opened the Yao Ming Center in Beijing to help develop Chinese players. An estimated 300 million Chinese play basketball, making it the country’s most popular sport. China has created a largely privately owned basketball league, the CBA, intended to rival the NBA, but it is riven with corruption, mismanagement, and a lack of international quality players. Vladimir Putin is pushing the expansion of the Kontinental Hockey League, aspiring to surpass the NHL.

An increasing number of countries are employing sports as part of their public diplomacy efforts. New Zealand embraces Rugby Diplomacy through its national team, the All-Blacks. It used the hosting of the World Rugby Cup in 2011 to redefine New Zealand as a diverse, multi-racial country which prides itself on high tech innovation and green products. Kiwi diplomats promote the playing of rugby in other countries, especially among children of color, and proudly display photos of the All-Blacks doing the Haka, the Maori war dance. With strong support from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the US State Department expanded its Sports Envoy program, sending American athletes – in particular, women, disabled athletes and players of color – on public diplomacy tours. In a series of moves to expand sports’ role and those who participate in them, Mrs. Clinton sent Laker great Kareem Abdul Jabbar to Brazil as a US sports ambassador.

Beginning in 1932 and revived after WWII, Israel has hosted the Maccabiah Games—the “Jewish Olympics”—where Jewish athletes (and also Israeli Arabs) compete every four years in Maccabiah Stadium in Tel Aviv. In 2013, more than 9000 athletes from 78 countries participated, making the games the third largest sporting event in the world. One of the medal winners was Kera Bartlett, a graduate of Occidental and my former diplomacy student, who won a Bronze in the pole vault.
Canada and Norway, as middle powers, have also embraced sports as part of their diplomatic tool kits. Canada has, not surprisingly, practiced hockey diplomacy, sending teams to play in China. Norway hosts an annual goodwill soccer tournament for international youth teams, and the Norwegian Development Agency has funded “Kicking Aids Out” as an effort use soccer to promote AIDS awareness in Africa.

In a globalized world, sport is a vital part of almost every country’s soft power. It can increase national pride, spread national influence, and serve as a useful tool of public diplomacy, encouraging communication and international understanding.

Can Sports Bring World Peace?

The power of sport has also been recognized by a number of international organizations. In 2000, Prime Minister of Greece George Papandreou and the International Olympic Committee established the International Truce Centre with the goal of reviving the ancient tradition of the Olympic truce. The Centre includes a foundation which promotes peace by mobilizing athletes, youth and political leaders around sport and peace. A year later, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan created the Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP), and in 2004, an international working group was formed with forty five member nations. An increasing number of NGOs are also utilizing sport in their work. Search for Common Ground, a Washington DC-based organization, utilizes sports to bring together Israeli and Palestinian youth. The World Disc Federation supports Ultimate Diplomacy, organizing Ultimate Peace matches between youth in conflict areas, including the West Bank.
These and other non-profit ventures have had an impact in particular cases, but are not transformative internationally. A greater effect, at least in terms of changing public attitudes, has come from the globalization of players and coaches in major sports leagues—a development which Simon Kuper, columnist for the Financial Times and co-author of Soccernomics, argues is creating a new post-nationalism in sports competition. Fans around the world root for their favorite teams whose players, coaches and owners increasingly come from all over the globe. Local is now increasingly global.

German soccer star Jurgen Klinsmann coaches the US national soccer team. Former US player Bob Bradley coached the Egyptian national soccer team. Most of the coaches in the Chinese and Japanese soccer leagues come from Europe. Hockey players from Scandinavia, Russia, and Eastern Europe are stars in the NHL. International players are gaining a significant presence in the NBA. The San Antonio Spurs have pioneered in recruitment of international players. Major League Baseball boasts players from Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and even Australia.

The leading UEFA champion soccer teams from England, Italy, France, and Portugal now contain an average of about twenty-five percent or less of domestic players. The rest are foreigners, including a number of stars from Africa such as Ivory Coast-born Didier Drogba, as well as dark-skinned players from Brazil and Latinos from Argentina and Uruguay. The British team Liverpool is owned by Fenway Sports Group (which also owns the Boston Red Sox) and has over half a billion fans, a majority of them in Asia. The global audience for the English Premier League is at least 4 billion. Manchester City is owned by an oil sheik and Cardiff City by a Malaysian. A Russian oligarch owns Chelsea. NBC Sports and Fox Sports broadcast European soccer to US homes. Japan’s NHK broadcasts American baseball to Japan. ESPN-Brazil televises the NFL game of the week to Brazilians.

The globalization of sports, however, does not magically make global citizens. There are still racist incidents. The privately recorded racist comments of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling led almost overnight to his lifetime banning from the NBA. Fifty members of the US Senate have urged the NFL to pressure the Washington Redskins to change the team name. Dilma Rousseff, president of Brazil, took a public stand against racism after bananas were thrown at a dark skinned Brazilian soccer star playing in Spain. As anti-migrant sentiment increased in Switzerland, a German media outlet showed a picture of how the Swiss national soccer team would look without players with a multicultural background—only three “pure” Swiss starters would be left on the starting team.

Sport in our globalized era is overall a force for good—for increased international understanding, peaceful competition, and promotion of global citizenship. It doesn’t substitute for traditional diplomacy and smart use of hard power, but it can be a virtuous form of soft power.