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[WebDebate #14 summary] Sports diplomacy: new diplomacy and peacemaking tools, or propaganda by other means?

Published on 07 July 2017
Updated on 05 April 2024

Diplo’s July WebDebate explored the extent to which sports can be used as a tool for diplomacy and peace. We asked: what forms does sports diplomacy take? Who are the actors? Is it more than just propaganda by other means? And, to what extent can it contribute to peace?

Our first presenter was Dr J Simon Rofe (Senior Lecturer in Diplomacy and International Studies, and Global Diplomacy Programme Director at SOAS, University of London). Rofe suggested that it is best to speak about ‘sport and diplomacy’, instead of sports diplomacy, in order to underscore that both aspects are of equal weight and importance in a globalised world. To explain the importance of sport and diplomacy, Rofe brought our attention to the London 2012 Olympics. He highlighted that there were a range of different actors and processes working simultaneously to provide the support for the event.

While these events can be hijacked (the attack near the Stade de France in Paris during a friendly football game between France and Germany in 2015 comes to mind), sporting events offer opportunities for diplomacy and reconciliation (like the first match France played after the attack, which commemorated the lives lost). At the same time, events like this are themselves an opportunity for diplomacy to take place.

Sports diplomacy also raises a number of questions such as: to what extent does sport play a role in the realm of international diplomacy? And what is its role in relation to cultural diplomacy and public diplomacy? What identities does sport create, perpetuate and subdue? How does sport contribute to the development of global phenomena, global media, and globalisation/glocalisation?

Rofe also pointed out that sports are increasingly contributing to the realisation of development and peace, as per the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. He concluded by arguing that sport can have an influence on diplomacy in a unique fashion. When it does have such an influence, it is temporary and/or geographically specific. And, conversely, diplomacy does influence the conduct of sport.

Mr Sean Hamil (Lecturer in Management at the Department of Management at Birkbeck, University of London) was our second presenter. He argued that sport is like an ecosystem, a network of interdependence that requires equilibrium. There are multiple stakeholders interacting, with multiple objectives. Their objectives include: promoting participation and interest by developing strong grassroots, contributing to public health and cultural renewal, operating an entertainment business, contributing to nation branding.

Yet, the ‘peculiar’ characteristics of sports’ economics is the principle that competitors must co-operate to both organise a competition and to make a profit. Sport is a globalised activity, organised at a globalised basis. It is an area that, in order to be managed effectively, requires a high level of bargaining. There is an internal level of bargaining with internal sport system stakeholders and an external level of bargaining with stakeholders external to the sport system, such as governments and regulators. In order to bargain effectively, legitimacy is crucial. As such, the sport ecosystem must maintain good relations with external stakeholders, particularly governments. Hamil concluded that the area of sport is already one where diplomatic skills are at a premium.

Picking up on the lively chat discussion, DiploFoundation’s Dr Katharina Hone, the moderator of this WebDebate, directed our panelists to comment on the overlap between public diplomacy and sports diplomacy, the autonomy of sport, the peace function of sport, sport as a tool versus sport as an arena of human activity, and implored them to give advice to developing countries in terms of sports diplomacy.


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