Sport, Diplomacy, and Influence. What is the Impact of Sport within Diplomacy and History of International Relations?

Claire Nicolas's picture


Charlotte Faucher (Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle, ICEE), Nicolas Peyre (Toulouse Capitole, IDETCOM).

Academic committee

Patrick Clastres (Université de Lausanne, CRHIM/CEOGS), Charlotte Faucher (Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle, ICEE), Claire Nicolas (Fonds National Suisse & SOAS), Nicolas Peyre (Université Toulouse Capitole, IDETCOM).



French & English


To mark the centenary of the AFAA (Association Française d'Action Artistique), the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3 organised a monthly online workshop for 18 months in 2020-2022 and an international symposium in May 2022 with the support of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs (MEAE) and the Institut Francais (French Institute). Some fifty researchers participated in these reflections on the history of cultural diplomacy. To continue these discussions, some of the initial members of the academic committee have launched a new collaboration with historians of sport and sport diplomacy, and are thus organising a new online workshop on the following theme: ‘Sport, diplomacy, and influence: what is the impact of sport within diplomacy and the history of international relations?’. We hope that this workshop will result in a special issue that will be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

This multidisciplinary project (which combines history, information and communication sciences, international relations, and political science) aims to facilitate conversations between specialists in sport and those in diplomacy, and in particular soft power, at a time when the French government, the various ministries, and the organising committee of the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games are organising an event of global importance in France. 

The academic committee wishes to encourage two main approaches. On the one hand, it welcomes reflections on the significance of the organisation of the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games for France and its image in the world. On the other hand, it wishes to explore broader analyses of the relationship between sport and diplomatic influence in contemporary history. We welcome proposals for papers relating to all geographical areas, particularly those that go beyond Europe and the United States.

Project’s framework

How does sport allow us to understand different modes of diplomacy, whether state-led diplomacy, public diplomacy through private actors who can serve as relays for state diplomacy, one-to-one diplomacy, or soft power? Moreover, does sport constitute a separate, and indeed singular object of research of International Relations when compared to other cultural productions and fields? In other words, what does sport have to do with the history of International Relations? Beyond the French case, the seminar, and the special issue that will result from it, aim to offer a space for historical and interdisciplinary reflection on the links between sport, diplomacy, prestige, influence and international public communication.

The Service des œuvres françaises à l'étranger (SOFE), established within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1920, was France’s first modern cultural diplomacy office. It was composed of four main sections: the universities and schools section, the most important one; the artistic and literary section; the tourism and sports section; and finally the miscellaneous works section. The first two sections have largely attracted the work of historians of cultural diplomacy who often adopt a restricted definition of the concept of culture, thus excluding sport. In 1994, however, Pierre Arnaud drew attention to the SOFE's sports holdings and to Georges Noblemaire's arguments that did not distinguish between art, music, literature and languages on the one hand, and sport on the other. As one of the members of Parliament behind the reform aimed at setting up the SOFE, Noblemaire remarked in April 1920 on the eve of the Antwerp Games that ‘it is absolutely essential that France should not lose in the eyes of the athletic world, which dominates in particular in countries such as America, England and the Scandinavian countries, the prestige acquired through the supreme sport of war’. In 1920, France became the first country in the world to have administratively consecrated sport as a tool of its cultural diplomacy. For example, the SOFE funded the travel of sportsmen and women during international competitions. It also integrated major French sport events in propaganda films intended for foreign audiences.

With a few exceptions, this theme has not attracted much interest of historians and specialists in international relations until recently. In Sport et politique (1966), however, the Swiss political scientist Jean Meynaud envisaged sport as ‘a revealer of public sentiment’ that could contribute to the international history of representations. Sport could illuminate ‘preconceived ideas, myths, stereotypes, reflexes created by the socio-cultural environment... that must be confronted with official reports, opinion polls, press speeches, written or oral testimonies, and the infinite resources of audio-visual memory’. Drawing inspiration from Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Jr. Nye, in his avant-garde thesis (1976) David Kanin did not hesitate to integrate international sports organisations in his conception of sport as ‘a transnational process within contemporary international relations’. It is also worth mentioning the pioneering issue of the Relations internationales (1984) in which Pierre Milza underlined the heuristic value of sport in the history of international relations as a ‘component and reflection of international life’, a ‘means of foreign policy’ and a ‘revealer of public sentiment’. His article also presented a very stimulating agenda for future research concerning ‘the relationship between the international economy and sport’, ‘the articulation between domestic and foreign policy’, and ‘the influence exercised by one country on another’.

Our approach is also based on the numerous publications that have engaged with the staging of sports bodies in relation to the projection of nationalism or ideologies, whether by totalitarian regimes during the Second World War, during the first years of African independence or during the global Cold War. These have shown that major sporting events are valuable for countries’ diplomatic strategies and their quest for increased international reputation. This seminar also proposes to question the specificity of sport in relation to other tools of cultural influence. As the historian of the USSR and football Robert Edelman (2019) aptly points out, ‘the very liminality of sport makes it both the hardest form of soft power and the softest form of hard power’. Finally, this resolutely multidisciplinary and international seminar intends to contribute to questioning and clarifying the uses of the established concepts and tools of soft power, public diplomacy, and cultural diplomacy, but also of more recent developments such as new diplomacy, diplomacy of influence, one-to-one diplomacy and nation branding.

Sporting events have several distinct features including the uncertainty of their outcome and the fact that diplomats and political leaders are confronted with a multiplicity of actors. These include supranational sports organisations (which have their own global management dynamics), national sports leaders (who value their autonomy), sponsors and media subject to expansion and profitability issues, athletes (who have their own careers to pursue), and public opinion divided between several identities. We therefore invite specialists in diplomacy, international relations, and sport to propose papers that encompass the plurality of actors concerned by these issues. 

The world of sports constructs a space of 'global diplomacy', to follow the formula of Simon Rofe (2016) in so far as it mobilises a network of actors at the local, national, international, or transnational level, whether state or non-state. One of the particularities of the 'planet of sports', and of its components, such as the International Sports Federations and the International Olympic Committee, is to insist on their autonomy and neutrality: should we then think of these entities as 'peri-diplomatic' structures? In this respect, the interactions between sport and diplomatic influence invite us to question the place of the state, and to bring to light the complexity of the web of actors who make sport a space of plural negotiations, involving transnational sports institutions, states, and individuals. 

Finally, we invite the participants to ask themselves the question of the effectiveness and impact of this form of sport influence. Is it that simple to set in motion, to relate to, or even to influence these different actors? What are the opposing forces (activist athletes, NGOs, political parties, etc.)? And what happens when other state services impose a diplomatic narrative that is opposed to the one proposed by actors in the field of sport? In this perspective, we invite scholars to reflect on what methodologies in the field of history, political sciences and communication sciences might allow us to measure the social, political, and even psychological effects of influence policies. The aim is to address the thorny issue of ‘reception’ which often sits uncomfortably in studies of soft power.


15 November 2022: Paper proposals in French or English should be sent to the following address: no later than 15 November 2022. The academic committee will evaluate these proposals which should include: 

* Name, first name, e-mail address, status, discipline, short biography.

* The title of the proposed paper.

* An abstract of maximum 2000 characters (including spaces).

* A short bibliography.

* The language of the paper (French or English). There will be no simultaneous translation.

1 December 2022: reply from the academic committee.

The project is based on a monthly bilingual French-English seminar that will take place online (via Zoom) between January and June 2023. Two weeks before each session, a text for a 20-minute presentation will be sent by the author in order to prepare the discussion. During each session, a specialist will be invited to respond to the presentation before opening up the floor for a Q&A with the audience and the speaker

The members of the scientific committee of the seminar will then approach some of the participants for contribution to a special dossier of a journal (to be determined), for publication in 2024. Finally, we are hoping to organise a study day entitled "Sport, diplomacy and influence: what is the impact of rugby within diplomacy" in a French university at the end of 2023, followed by a symposium in Lausanne in 2024. 


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