Article Review 813 on “Sports Diplomacy” Forum, Diplomatic History 40:5

George Fujii's picture






Article Review

No. 813

7 December 2018




Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse

Web and Production Editor: George Fujii


“Sports Diplomacy” Forum, Diplomatic History 40:5 (November 2016): 805-892.




Review by Molly Geidel, University of Manchester

This is a fascinating and timely collection of articles on sport and diplomacy, focusing most closely on how athletics met Cold War maneuvering in the 1970s. Along with a brief introduction by editors Hallvard Notaker, Giles Scott-Smith, and David J. Snyder, Anne Blaschke provides a nuanced account of how track athletes came to represent U.S. interests during the Cold War and began to resist their status as national symbols; Scott Laderman traces the convergences of surfing and international diplomacy in Japan and Indonesia; Joseph Eaton carefully considers how Asian leaders and diplomats leveraged their participation in the 1980 Olympic boycott to improve relations with the United States and otherwise achieve varying diplomatic goals; and John Soares convincingly argues that Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s administration used hockey diplomacy to demonstrate a degree of distance from the United States and closeness to the Soviet Union.


The section also contains two fascinating commentaries. Mario Del Pero considers the range of relationships the articles suggest between athletic contests and international relations, while Shanon Fitzpatrick draws attention to important themes. She notes how these articles depict the mobilization of gendered and racialized bodies in the 1970s with the goal of either supporting or challenging the US “reassertion” of its aggressive presence in the world in a decade where its foreign policy was characterized by “stories of falling, flailing, fracture, and bruised masculinity” (890).[1]Both commentaries emphasize the difficulty, but also the importance, of moving beyond discussions of the intended symbolic meaning of a particular athletic contest in order to piece together its reception by, and impact on, global audiences. How did these performances land? These questions seem particularly difficult to answer in the realm of sport, where the meanings of bodily gesture and of performances of race, gender, and power seem particularly variable, both historically and cross-culturally.


Despite the difficulty of analyzing the varied receptions of sporting competitions, these contributors are able to do quite a lot. Soares satisfyingly mines complaint letters, Blaschke gleans some information about fan reactions from interviews with athletes, Eaton makes excellent use of PRC documents, and Laderman considers film promotion and reception as part of his attempt to understand the intended and received international meanings of surfing. All use periodicals to good effect, deftly spotting moments that provide glimpses into interactions between athletes and their fans and detractors.


I want to highlight one theme suggested by all of these contributions: how states use athletes’ bodies and performances in triumphalist narratives of nationalism and global hegemony, sometimes despite the wishes of those athletes. Even when athletes do not win games, they can be used effectively to at once soften and bolster a country’s image. As Laderman argues, American surfers, even as they attempted to escape the strictures of Cold War America, were used by Indonesia to help rehabilitate the country’s image for international tourism after the U.S.-supported massacres of Communists in the mid-1960s. Likewise, Eaton shows how in the case of the 1980 Liberty Bell Classic, athletes from South Korea and the Philippines, despite their poor showing, were used to defuse domestic tensions and align those countries with Jimmy Carter’s vision of human rights in the international arena.


We have recently seen a revival in the United States of athletes using their bodies to disrupt nationalist feeling, most prominently Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to mobilize his own body in patriotism by standing during the national anthem. Kaepernick cites the “bodies in the street” of young men like Michael Brown, killed by police in 2014, as the reason for his disruption, as does the wave of solidarity protests that have followed, with professional, amateur, college, and high school athletes alternately sitting, kneeling, and raising their fists during the anthem.[2] Kaepernick’s protest has been met with anger from President Trump and ostracism from the NFL; the persistent idea that his gesture disrespects US soldiers indicates the close relationship between athletes’ bodily discipline and the United States’s diplomatic and military reputation. In his refusal, Kaepernick of course echoes 1968 Olympic medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith, whose story Blaschke elegantly places alongside those of lesser-known tracksters like Wyomia Tyus in a much longer history of African American athletes’ attempts to control and resist the conscription of their bodies as Cold War propaganda. In the 1970s, when athletes attempted to use their bodies on (and off) the podium to draw attention to the bodies “in the street,” the jungle, the ocean, and the mass grave, their protests produced mixed results: Carlos and Smith were severely penalized, while Tyus continued to be marginalized as a political actor but was seen as a “dependable ambassador” by the state department for her track accomplishments (837).


One reason athletes exert particular power as national symbols is that they are easily mobilized to justify power differentials between nations; they stand as symbols of power politics, as undeniable proof of fairness with domination. As in war, winning constitutes its own kind of justice. Whatever Wilma Rudolph and other track athletes might have thought about the United States and how it treated African Americans, Blaschke’s account shows how their superior speed and strength justified American power; conversely, the Olympic boycott, as Soares’s account indicates, has been imagined popularly and by previous historians as a failure for Carter because the ‘low caliber’ of the athletes from boycotting nations self-evidently made their participation unimportant. As U.S.-backed Cold War terror continued in Indonesia, Cambodia, Chile and elsewhere, symbolic, bloodless spectacles enacted the fantasy of a level Cold War playing field and operated in the service of a newly prominent, if selectively enforced, human rights agenda.


Thus, even with these protests, the question remains: can sport effectively challenge or disrupt nationalism and empire? There is a fundamental contradiction in imagining sporting competition as an expression of friendship while also brandishing athletes’ bodies as evidence of national superiority, a contradiction these pieces, in the tradition of Smith, Carlos, and Kaepernick, admirably engage.  What does it mean to envision sport without, beyond, or against nationalism? While Del Pero characterizes the 1975 U.S.-China noncompetitive track meet as the “sporting nadir,” of the “quasi-androgynous period of détente,” Blaschke’s fascinating research suggests that it was not that simple. For her, the departure from hypercompetitive nationalism and strict gender division also contained the potential for imagining internationalist connection and play (886). This moment, like so many in the 1970s, might be better understood as one that suggested radical possibilities for reimagining international and gender relations, an undertaking connected to the seeming triumph of the global antiwar and second-wave feminist movement during the same period. These possibilities, of course, were rapidly foreclosed by the end of the decade with the definitive reassertion of American hegemony and masculine-coded power.


Molly Geidel is a lecturer in twentieth-century U.S. cultural history at the University of Manchester.  Her first book, Peace Corps Fantasies: How Development Shaped the Global Sixties, was published in 2015 by University of Minnesota Press in its Critical American studies series. She is working on two new books: a history of the development film in the Americas and a cultural history of counterinsurgency in the post-1945 United States. This year she is a visiting fellow at the Charles Warren Center for American History at Harvard University.


© 2018 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License



[1] Hallvard Notaker, Giles Scott-Smith, and David J. Snyder, “Introduction,” Diplomatic History (henceforth DH) 40:5 (November 2015): 807-809; John Soares, “Hockey Diplomacy and U.S.-Canadian Relations in the Early Trudeau Years,” DH 40:5: 810-825; Anne Blaschke, “‘Running the Cold War:’ Gender, Race, and Track in Cultural Diplomacy, 1955–1975,” DH 40:5: 826-844; Joseph Eaton, “Reconsidering the 1980 Moscow Olympic Boycott: American Sports Diplomacy in East Asian Perspective,” DH 40:5: 845-864; Scott Laderman, “Wanderlust: Surfing, Modernization, and Cultural Diplomacy in the Long 1970s,”  DH 40:5: 865-884; Mario Del Pero, “Commentary,” DH 40:5: 885-888; and Shannon Fitzpatrick, “Commentary,” DH 40:5: 889-892.

[2] Megan Garber, “They Took a Knee,” The Atlantic (24 September 2017)