Sports Diplomacy and Understanding Athletic Culture

From the USC Public Diplomacy blog, an excellent resource to track  American diplomacy efforts:

U.S. sports diplomacy is enjoying a comeback of its own. With strong support from Under Secretary Karen Hughes, the Department of State’s budget for sports grants and sports programming has climbed from a lowly $600,000 to roughly $5 million in just five years….

Those who contribute to State’s athletic initiatives attribute their success to the universal nature of sport. Only certain cultures or segments of society show strong interest in speaking English, traveling to the United States, attending a classical music event, or participating in a discussion on human rights. "On the other hand" they note,"virtually all cultures and all citizens have an interest in and appreciation for sport. This makes it one of the best methods for exchange" — especially for diplomats operating in an age when the opinions of foreign publics are so crucial for success.

Interestingly, the United States is one of only a few countries that does not have an official Minister of Sport — but this is also what makes our sports industry such a great resource. We do not publicly fund or run our National Olympic Committee; our professional sports leagues do not report to the government; and we do not provide money for the training of U.S. athletes. In other words, sports in the United States are formed from the bottom up and thus represent a microcosm of our country as a whole, both good and bad.

Interesting — I love thinking about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to projecting soft power. The fiasco in Iraq has taught us that we should be focused much more on these kinds of diplomatic efforts to affect change in troubled countries.

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While we’re on the topic of sports, I want to make a separate point: I’m surprised when pundits and intellectuals claim to understand the world we live in while also pleading happy ignorance when it comes to all things sports. I would argue that whether or not you’re a fan, whether or not you were thrilled when Barry Bonds broke the home run record (congrats, Barry!), understanding athletics’ impact on a society is fundamental to understanding the society in general. Sports are just too central to too many people’s lives, even if they’re not central to your own.

So while I don’t think you need to track scores or go to games, I do think that if you’re to call yourself an informed citizen you should have basic literacy in the amateur and professional sports of the day: what they are, how they work, what the trends or scandals are, the magnitude of the industries that surround them, and the values propagated by the most influential living athletes.

I find it interesting that some of the most well-respected journalists today — Malcolm Gladwell, George Will, others — are huge sports fans. I wonder if their understanding of sports and its role in society positively contributes to their work as professional commentators on culture and politics?

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