H-Diplo Article Review Forum 721 on “Diplomacy and Sport” in Diplomacy & Statecraft 27:2 (2016): 207-378.

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Article Review
No. 721
An H-Diplo Article Review Forum
2 November 2017

Editors:  Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii

H-Diplo Article Review Forum on “Diplomacy and Sport” in Diplomacy & Statecraft 27:2 (2016): 207-378.

Reviewed by:

Jessica M. Chapman, Williams College
Paul Sharp, University of Minnesota Duluth

URL:      http://tiny.cc/AR721

Introduction by Simon Rofe, University of London and Heather L. Dichter, Western Michigan University

“Prologue: Diplomacy and Sport”[1]

In attending the London Olympic Games of 2012, competitors and visitors at each venue were greeted with four flags; from left to right, they were the International Olympic flag—and the International Paralympic flag subsequently—the flags of the United Nations [UN] and the London Olympic Organising Committee [LOCOG], and the British Union Jack.[2] These flags represent polities with a number of identities, but their most straightforward were as the foremost global sporting body that governs the quadrennial gathering of the ‘youth of the world,’ the pre-eminent international organisation of states, a temporary organisational body, and the flag of a nation-state adopted in 1801. Each of these symbols is itself a form of communication; they represent something, and then signal a capacity for a relationship with other polities, one that requires consistent negotiation.[3]

These three characteristics are at the core of diplomacy’s purpose and its practice.[4]

The Olympic Games are universally seen as the pinnacle of sporting endeavour for vast swaths of the global audience, for sponsors, and, perhaps most importantly given the spectacle that results, for the athletes.[5] The Olympics, perhaps more than any other sporting event, allow for what Naoko Shimazu considers “diplomacy as theatre.”[6] Shimazu’s approach resonates neatly with sport where symbolic ‘performances’ are undertaken upon particular ‘stages’ set out for sport with perceivable levels of audience and athlete interaction. The sportsman or sportswomen as entertainer expressly allows for performances to surround the sporting endeavour; in tennis, one can think of the stark contrast in fiery John McEnroe and ice-cold Bjorn Borg’s ‘performance’ alongside their sporting talents; in motor-racing, James Hunt and Nikki Lauder in the early 1970s or Aryton Senna and Alain Prost in the 1980s were sporting rivalries where performance as much as skill were at stake. In such performances, elements of those key diplomatic purposes are evident.

Examples of the significance of sport to diplomatic practice are plentiful if routinely overlooked.[7] They are overlooked in lieu of headline grabbing ‘sport and politics’; or the prospect of sport offering humanitarian solutions through the Sport, Development, Peace framework; or, and something that befalls both of these realms, because sport is seen as trivial or peripheral amid the crises that define global affairs. Of course, in many senses it is; as a general rule, contemporary sport does not result in life threatening hardship and death. However, there are numerous examples of sport resulting in the physical harm, discord and, occasionally, death for competitors and spectators.[8] And to paraphrase the words of former Liverpool Football Club manager, Bill Shankly, “sport is not a matter of life and death; it is far more important than that.”[9] In this light, it is imperative to balance the potential for good that sport can provide with the capacity it possesses for abuse, foul play, and conflict.[10] George Orwell warned in 1945 against “blah-blahing about the clean, healthy rivalry of the football field and the great part played by the Olympic Games in bringing the nations together”; instead, he warned that sport brought out nationalism’s worst characteristics.[11] Orwell saw nationalism as “the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.” To this he contended, “you do make things worse by sending forth a team of eleven men, labelled as national champions, to do battle against some rival team, and allowing it to be felt on all sides that whichever nation is defeated will ‘lose face.’” The importance for this discussion is that in diplomacy, the “losing” or “saving” of face—whilst employing the verbiage of sport—is critical in achieving one’s aims. Baroness Valerie Amos, a former UN under-secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, considers sport as “enabler.”[12] As such, sport does not just exist in the abstract but alongside other issues of international relations. In the past decade, for example, the UN has received regular reports on the role that sport plays in development and peace; a 2010 instance noted, sport “has been recognised as a powerful tool in contributing to the achievement” of the Millennium Development Goals.[13] It is therefore important to consider sport and diplomacy as having both positive and negative dimensions, often simultaneously. In other words, there is a balance in the scope of analysis that places sport into broad research methodologies and ethics of research.

The editors have deliberately brought together these articles, as they contribute to a burgeoning and ever more balanced literature on “Sport and Diplomacy” from a variety of different disciplinary backgrounds. The variety of perspectives and methodologies reflects the capacity for a single object of study—sport—to provide the opportunity for sites of academic exchange.[14] It is noteworthy because sport has received notably greater attention in fields other than that of diplomatic studies, such as sociology, history, physical education/kinesiology, development studies, and politics—a number of the contributors have heritages in one or more of these fields.

The contributions to this special issue address three key areas. The open- ing articles by Simon Rofe, James Pamment, and Jonathan Grix and Michael Brannagan address the place of sport and diplomacy as a field of study. They consider founding questions such as the parameters of sport and diplomacy—even if they are still to be established, the relationship with the topics ‘public diplomacy,’ ‘soft power,’ and participatory diplomacy models. The analyses they provide illustrate the scope for discourse here, and for the articles that follow. The subsequent two articles each address specific questions of practice in sport and diplomacy. Aaron Beacom and Ian Brittain explore the role of Paralympic sport and its governing body, the International Paralympic Committee, as representing a particular group—disabled peoples—at national and international levels and in relation to national and international policies and attitudes. Verity Postlethwaite and Jonathan Grix then address the framework in which the International Olympic Committee operates as a diplomatic actor eschewing a statist approach in favour of socio-legal theory. The final three articles address specific instances of sport and diplomacy in their appropriate contexts. Drawn from a range of historical epochs, they illustrate if nothing else that sport and diplomacy have never been absent in diplomatic practice in modern times. More significantly, Katie Liston and Joseph Maguire, Heather Dichter, and Dario Brentin and Loic Tregoures illustrate with aplomb sport’s abilities to contribute to broader historical reappraisal of three key moments of the twentieth century the ‘interwar period,’ the ‘post-war years,’ and the ‘post-cold war era.’ Each of these periods and their study illustrate aspects of transnational approaches that go beyond state-centred histories and consider transactions between peoples and organisations.

Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.[15]

These words of Nelson Mandela spoken in 2000 are de rigueur in offering up the explanatory powers of sport to a broader socio-political audience. This introduction has followed suit and, in doing so, makes three points illustrating the relationship between sport and diplomacy. First, Mandela, and with no lack of self-awareness, was speaking as president of South Africa and therefore as representative of a nation-state: the ultimate ambassador. Second, he was comfortable performing as a global statesman adopting a particularly diplomatic approach as Madiba—a respectful title from Mandela’s Xhosa clan—to the cause of sport as a tool for international development: not least in Africa. Finally, aware of the ‘theatre’ of his own iconic image from the 1995 Rugby World Cup, he was campaigning and negotiating for an African World Cup that would eventually arrive in South Africa in 2010: he was well aware that his audience was global. Beyond the audience in the room including the Brazilian footballer, Pele, and the musician, Jon Bon Jovi, he surely recognised he was communicating to a global public that could help sway the actions of fellow leaders. In each of these capacities, Mandela’s words resonated then and since. These articles contribute to understanding more fully the implications for diplomacy of Mandela’s words.


Simon J. Rofe is the inaugural director of CISD’s Global Diplomacy Masters programme (Distance Learning) at SOAS University of London. His authored books include Alison R. Holmes, Rofe, Global Diplomacy: Theories, Types and Models. Colorado: Westview Press, 2016); Rofe, Holmes, The Embassy in Grosvenor Square – American Ambassadors to the United Kingdom 1938-2008 (Palgrave, 2012); Andrew J. Williams, Amelia Hadfield, and Rofe, International History and International Relations, Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2012); J. Simon Rofe, Franklin Roosevelt’s Foreign Policy and the Welles Mission, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

Heather Dichter is at Western Michigan University and received a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. She has published with Andrew Johns, eds., Diplomatic Games: Sport, Statecraft and International Relations since 1945 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014) and Heather Dichter and Bruce Kidd, eds., Olympic Reform Ten Years Later (London: Routledge, 2012).

Jessica M. Chapman is associate professor of history at Williams College. In 2013 she published her first book, Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo DInh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam (Cornell University Press). She is currently working on two book projects: a survey of the Cold War and decolonization and an international history of Kenya’s running industry.

Paul Sharp is Professor and Head of Political Science at the University of Minnesota Duluth and co-founding editor of The Hague Journal of Diplomacy. He is contributing co-editor of The Sage Handbook of Diplomacy (Sage, London, 2017).


Review by Jessica M. Chapman, Williams College

Simon Rofe and Heather Dichter’s special issue of Diplomacy and Statecraft devoted to works centered on “Diplomacy and Sport” is both a welcome addition to the emerging interdisciplinary literature on the connections between those two subjects and an indication of the rich scholarship coming down the pipe. Several of the contributors note a recent surge in scholarly attention to various aspects of sport and diplomacy, pointing specifically to the 2011 formation of the Diplomacy and International Sport Research Group and the profusion of publications on related topics since 2013.[16] All of the essays in this special issue tackle questions central to the study of diplomacy and sport, collectively making a case for the importance of sport to our understanding of international relations in the modern world, and attempting to refine theories and set parameters that might guide future researchers as they engage with this burgeoning subfield.

Several of the authors pointed to Steven Jackson’s use of the term “schizophrenic” to describe how “sport is considered both serious and important but insignificant and trivial at different times.”[17] Sport is undoubtedly serious and important to the contributers to this issue, They build from the premise that ‘sport matters’ to make efforts to define exactly how it matters relative to diplomacy, to refine theoretical approaches to that question in the hopes of guiding future research, and to demonstrate some key examples of the complex interrelationship between sport and diplomacy in action. As Rofe points out, “It is necessary to see these two facets of contemporary society as equally valuable lenses that reflect the contributions of the other.” He further argues, “It is more useful to treat them as separate but equal realms rather than one subservient to the other” (214-215).

Two features of the modern landscape of international relations recur throughout the essays to suggest the importance of sport to contemporary diplomacy: the proliferation of actors on the international stage in the post-Cold War era, and the emergence of new communication technologies that simultaneously make it easier for non-state actors to reach a global audience while heightening the importance of reputation and prestige to nation-states seeking to obtain diplomatic objectives. While this points to a growing significance of the relationship between sport and diplomacy over the past few decades, it seems important to look for linkages that trace back long before the end of the Cold War. Indeed, Katie Liston and Joseph Maguire’s essay on “Ireland’s” participation in the 1930 British Empire Games (BEG) reminds us that the connections between international sport and diplomacy predate the Cold War and are, in fact, deeply rooted in imperial projects.[18]

One of the key takeaways from this special issue is that the relationship between sport and diplomacy is multidirectional. States often turn to sport as a way to achieve their diplomatic objectives, but they also find themselves subject to diplomatic pressures applied by powerful international sport federations and are forced to respond to the power of public opinion that popular sports engender. Examples in this special issue of states turning to representative international sport as a tool in their official diplomatic toolkits include postwar Germany leveraging membership in international sport federations to facilitate its reintegration into the community of nations, the emerging Irish state using participation in the British Empire Games to establish a positive national brand, and Kosovo pursuing a concerted diplomatic strategy of bolstering its legitimacy on the world stage through full admission into international sport federations.[19]

Jonathan Grix and Paul Michael Brannagan point out that as part of the strategic shift from hard to soft power, states have increasingly used sport and leveraged Sports Mega Events (SMEs) to increase their international prestige, to improve tarnished images, and to increase the likelihood of acceptance on the world stage.[20]

Two of the articles in this issue take up specific examples of states seeking membership in international sport federations as part of their diplomatic strategies to gain international legitimacy and recognition. Dichter persuasively argues that in the post-WWII climate in which the Western Allies sought to reintegrate West Germany into the international community while its smaller neighbors sought to check its power “the actions taken by the international sport federations provided opportunities…for Germany to return as a full member of the international community” (341). Dario Brentin and Loic Tregoures’s essay explores Kosovo’s strategy of pursuing membership in international sporting organizations like the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) as a step towards gaining full diplomatic recognition from the international community. By deploying the soft power of sport to bolster its nation-building and branding efforts, Kosovo sought to create symbolic pressure on the UN as well as other states that were withholding recognition. In this case, the authors are able to make a much more a direct link than is often possible between the country’s diplomatic struggle for recognition and the role of representative sport. The arguments in this piece potentially extend beyond the bounds of Kosovo to demonstrate how “sport can play a very particular and increasingly significant role for young and contested states’ diplomatic endeavours towards full international recognition” (361). This suggests one pathway for exploring the connections between sport and diplomacy in the decolonizing and post-colonial world, a context that is, to my mind, insufficiently addressed in this special issue as a whole.

Several other authors point out that a full understanding of the relationship between sport and diplomacy requires that we look beyond the bounds of the state to examine alternative flows of influence. In particular, international sport governing bodies have an increasing ability to act on states as well as other international organizations to advance their own agendas. Verity Postlethwaite and Grix point to “literature that has moved away from regarding sport as purely a practice of state-based diplomacy” that frames “sport as diplomacy” involving a range of non-state actors and agendas.[21] Most recognizably, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) can be considered as an independent actor with its own diplomatic agenda and a great deal of agency in international relations. Aaron Beacom and Ian Brittain introduce important questions about the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) diplomatic role, identifying it as an advocacy body engaged in public diplomacy aimed at promoting disability rights. They concede that the IPC is still working to become “in every sense an internationally representative sporting body” (290), noting that it is seeking in the post-Cold War era to establish itself in a rapidly evolving diplomatic environment with a more complex range of actors and issues” (278). However, their examination of the IPC’s aspirations to become a powerful diplomatic actor promoting the rights of disabled peoples around the world suggests that diplomacy can be practiced by sporting bodies that do not pack quite the same punch at the IOC and provides a model for scholars studying similar organizations.

One of the key foci of this issue is an effort to define the parameters of sport and diplomacy and to ground theoretical concepts like soft power, public diplomacy, and participatory diplomacy models in more concrete terms that future researchers might turn to as a guide. James Pamment’s essay on multi-stakeholder diplomacy makes an excellent case for “sport diplomacy” as “a key diplomatic practice capable of explicating layers and tensions within current debates around the diffusion of actors and agendas in diplomatic studies.”[22] Grix and Brannagan, working to establish an “ideal type” of a state’s soft power strategy, argue for sport as a “highly relevant foreign policy tool” (255). Limiting their focus to sources that reflected the objectives of the state, they turn to examples from Germany and Qatar to identify five resources at the heart of states’ soft power strategies: culture, tourism, branding, diplomacy, and trade. Perhaps due to my disciplinary background as a historian, I find myself a bit resistant to the idea of an ‘ideal type,’ as it seems important to evaluate each manifestation of soft power—an intentionally flexible concept introduced by Joseph Nye—on its own terms.[23] However, I appreciate the value of establishing a framework for grounding discussions of a term that, like ‘public diplomacy’ can sometimes be thrown around too loosely. Grix and Brannagan’s “ideal type” of soft power seems appropriately expansive and, by their own admission, “further research needs to develop the ideal type of soft power put forth in this analysis” (266).

Indeed, the essays in this issue serve by design more as an opening salvo than the final word in what will surely be a lively ongoing discussion about the relationship between sport and diplomacy. They raise a number of important questions about the parameters of the study of sport and diplomacy, and even about the appropriateness of applying the term ‘diplomacy’ to this context. Indeed, I found myself wondering if the strict determination to fit these discussions into the study of ‘diplomacy’ stretched the concept too thin in some cases while unnecessarily excluding from discussion the myriad ways that a number of actors in the realm of sport—not just states and major sporting federations—have affected international relations. Moreover, I was disappointed with the relative lack of attention to the decolonizing and postcolonial world in anything other than vague theoretical terms, as it clearly constitutes a big part of the story of modern sport and diplomacy. Overall, however, this collection of essays makes a fantastic contribution to the burgeoning field of sport and diplomacy studies. For anyone interested in these related topics, it is a must-read.


Review by Paul Sharp, University of Minnesota Duluth

The collection of articles in this special issue of Diplomacy and Statecraft adds to the growing literature in the social sciences and the humanities on the subject of sport and diplomacy. As J. Simon Rofe and Heather Dichter note in the Prologue, this is a relatively new field of inquiry.[24] There is a great deal on sport, and a great deal on sport and politics, sport and economics, and sport and culture. They might have added that there is also a growing body of work on sport and crime. However, there is not much on sport and diplomacy. To be fair, this is partly because diplomacy itself, as distinguished from the study of international history through diplomatic sources, is also a relatively new field of inquiry. This novelty is reflected in the composition of the special issue. Three articles focus upon conceptual clarification, two upon sports diplomacy practice, and three offer case studies. Together, they confirm a sense that in some generalized way sport and diplomacy are both regarded as becoming more important. As most of the contributors note, however, questions as to how important and in what ways remain problematic–indeed, problems worthy of investigation in themselves.

The first article, by Rofe, performs a general framing role for the rest of the articles in the collection.[25] It begins by noting how multiple actors and multiple types of actors, some with considerable economic, political, and cultural resources, are involved in the complex network politics of international sport. The most successful professional soccer clubs, for example, are sports teams, financial powers, and global brands all at once. It then takes us back to some of the familiar ‘clichés’ which most people associate with sport and diplomacy–the Berlin Olympics of 1936, the Black Power salutes at the Mexico Olympics in 1968, the Cold War boycotts of the Moscow and Los Angeles Olympics, and, of course, the ‘Ping-Pong’ diplomacy of the U.S. opening to China in 1970. The article emphasizes, however, that these episodes represent a narrowing slice of what sport and diplomacy are increasingly about. It does so by employing and refining some distinctions which have appeared elsewhere.[26] The idea of sports diplomacy carries within it at least two other ideas: ‘sport-as-diplomacy,’ which refers to activities required to maintain international sporting authorities and to put on international sporting events; and ‘the international diplomacy of sport,’ which refers to the use of sport to secure other objectives primarily, but not exclusively, by states. Rofe’s article argues for a third conception, ‘sport and diplomacy’ primarily within a global framework. The advantages of such an approach, it is argued, are that it does not pre-judge where the weight of significance and power lies, it captures the complexities of a multiplicity of actors engaged in the key diplomatic activities of communication, representation, and negotiation, and it correctly scales the context within which all this activity increasingly takes place. Within a global context, states, sporting organizations, clubs, and individuals engage in acts of legitimation, resistance, and process-maintenance for themselves, the organizations to which they belong, and the particular sports associated with them.

The Rofe article reflects a broad and broadening conception of diplomacy, not so much in terms of a transition from old to new diplomacy, but in terms of an expansion of the sorts of things to which people increasingly pay attention and to which they ought to be paying attention. The article by James Pamment extends this approach.[27]  Diplomacy is conventionally seen as an instrument by which actors, usually states, seek to influence others to act in accordance with their policy objectives. Sport, in contrast, may be viewed as a practice within which actors define their own objectives and develop their abilities to secure these objectives. Diplomacy associated with sport, therefore, might be seen as a collaborative exercise involving participatory communication by which multiple stakeholders provide one another with help and assistance in jointly formulating what they want to achieve and developing their abilities to achieve it. Programs associated with the 2012 London Olympics, by which young women were provided with leadership skills, public health knowledge, and awareness of sexual, reproductive and women’s rights, are cited as an example of how transnational values can be negotiated and disseminated to wider populations. The article then considers how such programs are to be evaluated not merely in terms of the principal providers, but also the consumers of such programs.

The third conceptual piece, by Jonathan Grix and Paul Michael Brannagan, considers Joseph Nye’s notion of soft power and making sense of how it works at very big international sporting events.[28] After noting how widespread the use of the term has become, the article points out that attention to what soft power achieves has not been matched by attention to how it actually achieves it. What is needed is an ideal type or model of soft power which the article develops and applies to data generated by interviews with key people involved in Germany’s and Qatar’s bids to host the World Cup in 2006 and 2022 respectively. Five clusters of soft power resources are identified: culture; tourism; branding; diplomacy; and trade (260), followed by a schematic representation of Germany’s soft power package in terms of strategies, soft power resources, and soft power package, with arrows flowing from a list under strategies through a list under soft power resources to a list under soft power package (262). The Qatar case receives a briefer treatment than the German one and its effectiveness remains harder to ascertain.

The first of the two articles dealing with sports diplomacy practice is by Aaron Beacom and Ian Brittain.[29] It focuses on the public diplomacy of the International Paralympic Committee and the challenges of reconciling roles as a disability advocate leveraging international change in accordance with the global development agenda, and as a sports regulator. It begins by reviewing changes in understandings of diplomacy before charting the growth of the Paralympic movement, stressing how recent this development has been when compared to the rise of the international Olympic movement. It considers the relative paucity of resources enjoyed by the former, plus the role of the Paralympic movement in establishing values and setting standards for states in terms of both the treatment of their athletes with disabilities and the broader issue of cultural attitudes towards disabilities in general. Finally, the article notes the growth in the number of states engaged in Paralympics, continuing concerns with both the size and composition of participating teams, and future challenges posed by further expanding participation to those with intellectual disabilities.

The second practice-focused article, by Verity Postlethwaite and Jonathan Grix (a second contribution) examines attempts to classify the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as an international actor.[30] It is critical of those efforts on the grounds that such “run-of-the-mill” classifications can be inappropriate, “vague,” “hesitant,” and lack “empirical markers” (296-297) The article advances its own socio-legal framework which, it argues, provides a better analytic tool for making sense of the IOC as an actor and a setting which is essentially sui generis. The article then reviews social-legal theory, stressing the multi-directional and fluid character of influences which shape norms, identities and individuals, and claiming that this theory generates “further empirical evidence and markers” which can make sports diplomacy research “increasingly credible and rigorous” (300). The article concludes that applying this theory allows the IOC to be seen as acting, being acted upon, and as a site for action, in complex and multiple roles. Sometimes and in some ways the IOC is like a multinational corporation, transnational organization, and international non-governmental organization.

The final three articles are case studies incorporating, to a lesser and greater degree, insights from the preceding discussions, while also generating insights of their own. The first case study, by Katie Liston and Joseph Maguire, considers the participation of various Irish men on behalf of various iterations of Ireland (it was the Irish Free State at the time) in the 1930 British Empire Games.[31] It begins with a review of the sports diplomacy literature, followed by a general discussion of the uses of sport and other cultural practices in unequal, exploitative, and oppressive relations by all parties to them. The article then describes in some detail the problems and opportunities presented for sporting organizations by the emergence of the Irish Free State, the partition of the island of Ireland, and attempts to use sport both to increase and narrow the political distance between Ireland and the British Empire. The second case study, by Heather L. Dichter, examines Germany’s return to international sport after the Second World War and the role of other states, small ones in particular, in both facilitating its return and making it harder to achieve.[32] The article examines several sports and charts how a variety of factors, for example, in resource-intensive team games like soccer, the need for Germany’s big teams and money, and in individualist sports which needed few resources like fencing or skiing, the unwillingness to discount recent historical baggage, probably affected the pace of Germany’s rehabilitation.

The final case study by Dario Brentin and Loïc Tregoures considers the role of sports diplomacy in Kosovo’s quest for international recognition as a sovereign state.[33] The article begins by charting Kosovo’s struggle for independence and the incomplete character of that process demonstrated by its inability to gain sufficient international support to become a full member of the United Nations. It then examines the explicit decision to seek membership in international sporting organizations –principally the IOC and the international and European football federations (FIFA and UEFA respectively)—as way stations on the road to full international standing. Acceptance by the IOC, the government calculated, would put pressure on those who had not yet recognized Kosovo to do so, and would boost morale at home by providing its people with a sense of progress in that direction and a chance to participate in one of the key activities of the international society of states. The article concludes by expressing some pessimism about the likely effectiveness of the strategy and suggesting that full recognition of Kosovo is most likely to be achieved as part of a package by which Serbia becomes a member of the European Union.

Taken together, the collection of articles provides plenty of evidence for why sports diplomacy should be taken seriously. Even if one is interested primarily in states and power, one cannot understand the context in which those states operate without paying attention to some aspects of sports diplomacy. States use sports diplomacy, as they always have. The increasingly democratic or popular values to which the international society of states, at the very least formally, subscribes, together with the rising importance of the politics of spectacles made possible by the revolutions in communication and information technologies, increase the effectiveness and ease of using sport as an instrument of foreign policy. Even if this were not so, however, international sport generates great constellations of economic, cultural, and social power which are increasingly important features of the world in which states operate and which they would be unwise to ignore. As such constellations, they have their own dynamics, logics and agendas which are well deserving of study as international and global phenomena.

The collection also demonstrates the challenges of taking sports diplomacy seriously. One of these pertains to the sport side of sports diplomacy. It is best captured by a phrase to which at least two of the contributing authors refer, that is, Steve Jackson’s sense of the “schizophrenic character” of sports diplomacy or attempts to make sense of it.[34] The subject matter can seem important at one moment and trivial at another, while underlying this ambiguity is a sense that it ought not to be taken seriously. Perhaps attempts to do so should be challenged in the ‘real’ world and debunked by scholarship. Nonetheless, the world is full of things which some regard as trivial and others as a matter of life and death. Should the so-called ‘soccer war’ between Honduras and El Salvador, for example, or the refusal of an Egyptian athlete to shake the hand of his Israeli competitor, be regarded as trivial or serious?

A second challenge pertains to the diplomacy side of sports diplomacy.  People interested in diplomacy are committed to the notion that agency and practice–the thought and action of human beings—is of critical importance to the production of international relations and understanding how and why things turn out the way they do. As contributors to the collection note, however, teasing out these elements is notoriously difficult. Even diplomatic historians, with their archival advantages, are more likely to reconstruct big-picture foreign policy narratives from the diplomatic record, than to capture the daily grind and effort which makes those big narratives possible. Even the case studies in this collection reflect that difficulty. No sense is presented, for example, of what it was actually like for German sports diplomats to push for Germany’s rehabilitation in the world of international sports or their Belgian counterparts to resist that process, for how Irish sports administrators and athletes managed the competing demands of multiple claims on their identities, or how Kosovans embarked upon and carried out their quest for international sporting status. Instead, we know that they did, and the dates at which certain objectives were or were not achieved.

The methodological difficulties of getting at this sort of detail are large, to be sure, but the importance of doing so may be undermined by the way in which the idea of diplomacy itself is rather taken for granted in the collection. Rofe notes that the nature of diplomacy does not change—it involves communication, representation and negotiation—but its character does (216). Most of the other contributors note how greatly diplomacy has changed and continues to change from the relatively simple and homogeneous system of modern diplomacy’s heyday. Both points are undoubtedly true and important, but what diplomacy does, how it does it, and what distinguishes it from other forms or classifications of human relations need a more thorough investigation. After all, communication, representation, and negotiation are not functions belonging exclusively to diplomatic relations. What makes the objects of inquiry in this collection diplomatic? There are several possible answers to this question, including the possibility that diplomacy does not serve to capture the character of some of the relations under investigation here, but the question does need to be posed and answers attempted. 

Finally, some small points. Those skeptical about the value of middle-range social science inquiry–including, possibly, many readers of Diplomacy and Statecraft—will feel their prejudices confirmed by reading at least some of these articles. In this, they will only be partly right. The discussion of sports diplomacy, sport in diplomacy, sport for diplomacy, and so on, may seem unduly ponderous, especially when it is repeated several times in the course of the collection –one of the hazards of special issues and edited works alike. It is necessary, however, and Rofe is undoubtedly correct in settling on “sport and diplomacy,” leaving open the question of where the schwerpunkt of inquiry is to fall, and reminding us that in the real world of practice, the analytical categories often collapse upon one another. In some of the articles, however, the theoretical tale/tail seems exceedingly long relative to the analytical and empirical teeth. In one case, for example, several pages of discussion could have been adequately substituted for by the single sentence “Here is a suggested framework for analysis.” Some closer editing and copyediting might have dealt with this, the repetitions, some missing words and phrases, and the misspelling of the name of a very famous former footballer. This, however, it to shift from critique to complaint and even to carping about what is an original, stimulating, and diverse collection of articles about an interesting and increasingly important aspect of diplomacy and international relations generally.


© 2017 The Authors

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License


[1] This introduction initially was published in Diplomacy and Statecraft 27:2 (2016): 207-211. It appears here with the kind permission of the authors and the Editor of Diplomacy and Statecraft, Professor Brian McKercher.

[2] The author (Rofe) experiencing close hand the workings of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games’ (LOCOG) “International Relations” department during the XXXth Olympic Games which ran from July until the Paralympic Games closed on 9 September 2012.

[3] Diplomacy is rich in symbolism, often associated with pageantry, ceremony, and rituals that form diplomatic protocol. For further detail see Alisher Faizullaev, “Diplomacy and Symbolism,” Hague Journal of Diplomacy 8/2 (2013): 91-114.

[4] Alison Holmes with J. Simon Rofe, Global Diplomacy: Theories, Types and Models.

[5] Even modern professional sports such as basketball, tennis, and golf, which have their own highly coveted “prizes,” have come to associate themselves with the Olympic Games from 2016 in ways that raise questions as to business and financial aspects of sport. Not the immediate concern of this anthology of articles on “Sport and Diplomacy,” they form an important element to a number of the articles presented here.

[6] Naoko Shimazu, “Diplomacy as Theatre: Staging the Bandung Conference of 1955,” Modern Asian Studies 48/1 (2014): 225-252.

[7] Geoff Berridge’s seminal text has only one passing reference to “field sports” as a role for diplomats of yesteryear. See Geoff Berridge, Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, 5th ed. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 134. Scholars are not alone in overlooking sport. In considering Britain’s soft power influence in a House of Lords Select Committee report, Persuasion and Power in the Modern World (London: The Stationary Office, 2014), the chapter entitled “The UK’s Soft Power Assets: Their Role and Function,” 123-126 considered sport last amongst British soft power assets. This discussion accounted for less than 10 of 203 paragraphs in this chapter. Cf. Soft Power and the UKs Influence Committee. Oral and Written Evidence, 2 vols. (London, 2015): http://www.parliament.uk/soft-power-and-uks-influence.

[8] The case of sportsmen and women’s death during competition is rare. Although not excluding other sports, boxers and drivers in motorsports provide some of the most high-profile victims. Simon Kuper, Football against the Enemy (London: Orion, 1994), released as Soccer against the Enemy in the United States, illustrates the manner in which the global game can be the source of conflict. There is also the oft-referenced ‘football’ or ‘soccer’ ‘war’ of 1969 between El Salvador and Honduras that arose during 1970 World Cup qualifying matches in the respective capitals during 1969. More recently, the tifosi of Egyptian football clubs have been directly involved in the violent turmoil associated with the Arab Spring. See James M. Dorsey’s blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer: http://mideastsoccer.blogspot.ca/.

[9] Shankly allegedly said, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” See “Bill Shankly in quotes” (3 December 2009): http://liverpoolfc.com/news/latest-news/bill-shankly-in-quotes.

[10] Sport has a number of definitions that distinguish it from “play” and “games” resting on it being competitive, organised, and physical: cf. Orin Starn, The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012). Also see Orin Starn, Massive Open On-line Course [Duke University], “Sport and Society”: https://www.coursera.org/learn/sports-society. Yet the deeper truth of sport, as esteemed sports author Simon Barnes writes, “lies in the way that we remember the events, what they mean to us, how they affected us, how they changed us.” For Barnes, “Sport, as I have said more than once, is a living, unfolding mythology: vast collisions of archetypes in archetypal situations of conflict and camaraderie. This mythology is not found in the [outcome] but in the way we remember what happened, the way we talk about it, write about it, even sing about it.” Simon Barnes, “10 Years After,” Cricket Monthly (July 2015): http://www.thecricketmonthly.com/story/885119/ten-years-after. Barnes remarks are akin to the longstanding resilience of the “Great Sport Myth,” the intangible aspect of sport. See Jay Coakley, “Assessing the sociology of sport: On cultural sensibilities and the great sport myth,” International Review for the Sociology of Sport 50/4-5 (2015): 402-406.

[11] George Orwell. “The Sporting Spirit,” Tribune (December 1945).

[12] Author Interview with Baroness Valerie Amos, London, 16 October 2015.

[13] Report by the Secretary-General to 65th Session of United Nations General Assembly, “Sport for Development and Peace: Strengthening the Partnerships” (9 August 2010) A/65/16, http://research.un.org/en/docs/ga/quick/regular/65.

[14] Albert Camus famously stated “everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football,” indicates sports has at the very least an educational capacity.

[15] “Speech by Nelson Mandela at the Inaugural Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award, Monaco 2000” (25 May 2000): http://www.sweetspeeches.com/s/2474-nelson-mandela-speech-by-nelson-mandela-at-the-inaugural-laureus-lifetime-achievement-award-monaco-2000.

[16] Aaron Beacom and Ian Brittain, “Public Diplomacy and the International Paralympic Committee: Reconciling the Roles of Disability Advocate and Sports Regulator,” 274; J. Simon Rofe, “Sport and Diplomacy:  A Global Diplomacy Framework,” 213.

[17] Dario Brentin and Loïc Tregoures, “Entering through the Sport’s Door? Kosovo’s Sport Diplomatic Endeavours towards International Recognition,” 371.

[18] Katie Liston and Joseph Maguire, “Sport, Empire, and Diplomacy: ‘Ireland’ at the 1930 British Empire Games,” 314-339.

[19] Heather L. Dichter, “Sporting Relations: Diplomacy, Small States, and Germany’s Post-war Return to International Sport,” 340-359; Brentin and Tregoures, “Entering through the Sport’s Door? Kosovo’s Sport Diplomatic Endeavours Towards International Recognition,” 360-378; Liston and Maguire, “Sport, Empire, and Diplomacy: ‘Ireland’ at the 1930 British Empire Games,” 314-339.

[20] Grix and Brannagan, “Of Mechanisms and Myths: Conceptualizing States’ ‘Soft Power’ Strategies through Sports Mega-Events,” 252.

[21] Verity Postlehwaite and Jonathan Grix, “Beyond the Acronyms:  Sport Diplomacy and the Classification of the International Olympic Committee,” 298.

[22] James Pamment, “Rethinking Diplomatic and Development Outcomes through Sport:  Toward a Participatory Paradigm of Multi-Stakeholder Diplomacy,” 231-250.

[23] Joseph Nye, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 1990); Nye, “Soft Power and American Foreign Policy,” Political Science Quarterly 119/2 (2004), 255-270.

[24] J. Simon Rofe and Heather Dichter, “Prologue: Diplomacy and Sport,” Diplomacy & Statecraft 27:2 (2016): 207-211—hearafter cited as DS 27:2.

[25] J. Simon Rofe, “Sport and Diplomacy: A Global Diplomacy Framework,” DS 27:2: 211-230.

[26] Stuart Murray, “Sports Diplomacy,” special issue of The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 8:3-4 (2013).

[27] James Pamment, “Rethinking Diplomatic and Development Outcomes through Sport: Toward a Participatory Paradigm of Multi-Stakeholder Diplomacy,” DS 27:2: 231-250.

[28] Jonathan Grix and Paul Michael Brannagan, “Of Mechanisms and Myths:  Conceptualising States’ ‘Soft Power’ Strategies through Sports Mega-Events,” DS 27:2: 251-272.

[29] Aaron Beacom and Ian Brittain, “Public Diplomacy and the International Paralympic Committee: Reconciling the Roles of Disability Advocate and Sports Regulator,” DS 27:2: 273-294.

[30] Verity Postlethwaite and Jonathan Grix, “Beyond the Acronyms:  Sport Diplomacy and the Classification of the International Olympic Committee,” DS 27:2: 295-313.

[31] Katie Liston and Joseph Maguire, “Sport, Empire, and Diplomacy: ‘Ireland’ at the 1930 British Empire Games,” DS 27:2: 314-339.

[32] Heather L. Dichter, “Sporting Relations:  Diplomacy, Small States, and Germany’s Post-war Return to International Sport,” DS 27:2: 340-359.

[33] Dario Brentin and Loïc Tregoures, “Entering through the Sport’s Door? Kosovo’s Sport Diplomatic Endeavours towards International Recognition,” DS 27:2: 360-378.

[34] Steve J. Jackson, “The Contested Terrain of Sport and Diplomacy in a Globalizing World.” International Area Studies Review, 16/3 (2013), 282 cited in Verity Postlehwaite and Jonathan Grix, “Beyond the Acronyms:  Sport Diplomacy and the Classification of the International Olympic Committee,” DS 27:2: 310.