António Rolo Duarte
“You didn’t just make history this summer; you have helped to shape our future too. Thank you for bringing our country together in a wonderful sense of pride; thank you for inspiring generations to follow in your footsteps; and thank you for making Britain one of the world’s greatest Olympic and Paralympic superpowers,” said Prime Minister Theresa May in Manchester last week, welcoming home the British athletes who competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Powerful rhetoric, an emotional appeal to nationalism and an indirect allusion to a powerful past. Any typical British politician’s speech could incorporate these. But they would not have been included by Theresa May if she had been prime minister just a few decades back. In fact, if we were not in the twenty-first century, she would most likely not even have made that speech at all.
The reason? The speech was about sport.
A mere fifty years ago, the cliché statement that “politics and sport do not mix” was still repeated by politicians whenever important sporting contests took place. It was common practice for government officials to dismiss sport as an issue under their level of importance. Foreign Office officials such as Permanent Under-Secretary Sir Eyre Crowe would happily state that sport “is not a Foreign Office question at all” and grand events such as the Olympics “are no business of ours”.
As we saw in the prime minister’s speech last week, the traditional approach has been abandoned. In the twenty-first century, sportspeople and politicians are now contacting ever more often, and ever more comfortably. The reason is obvious: this relationship presents invaluable opportunities for statesmen who crave for influence over the masses, both at home and abroad.
All you need is a ball
In particular, sport is valuable in changing perceptions abroad. Who would a Syrian child most likely listen to: a British embassy worker with some leaflets about human rights; or Wayne Rooney with a football ball and a few minutes to spare?
Sport is a valuable diplomatic tool which reduces estrangement, promotes positive values and brings people together. Employing athletes in public diplomacy initiatives, hosting major sporting events such as the Olympics, or sending sportspeople abroad to engage in development projects can all spread a particular country’s ideas abroad in a positive and non-threatening way.
As opposed to hard power’s decisive actions and methods of coercion, sport as a soft power tool can work slowly to change perceptions. It can advance national interest by increasing the ideological influence on local populations. In most cases, it can also reduce attrition and foster understanding - as happens, for example, with the recurrent use of cricket events to deescalate tensions between India and Pakistan.
Who would a Syrian child most likely listen to: a British embassy worker with some leaflets about human rights; or Wayne Rooney with a football ball and a few minutes to spare?
It must be noted here that I do not wish to overestimate the power of sport in diplomacy: sport alone is, of course, no solution to the major challenges of our time. There is no chance that sportspeople will stop terrorism, climate change or an increasingly aggressive Russia. But sport can contribute to manage these, if it is effectively used by governments as part of wider diplomatic efforts.
Sport has a worldwide audience and speaks a universal language, making it an exceptionally accessible tool. It can bring old enemies together, as in the 2002 Football World Cup, which was successfully co-hosted by Japan and South Korea. It can change international perceptions of a country and communicate a rejuvenated identity, as happened for China following the Beijing 2008 Olympics. And it can effectively stop wars, as happened during the 1966 Football World Cup, the first one broadcast on television, when soldiers on both sides of the colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea would effectively stop fighting to watch their heroes play.
States in Europe and elsewhere would particularly benefit from using sport in their diplomatic strategies at this point in history. International politics now involves a range of new players and is characterized by a plethora of different layers and networks, which thanks to modern technology and travel links can wield greater influence than they did just a couple of decades ago.
In this sense, the use of sport can help to keep up with the pace of change. It can change the image of a country’s diplomacy from elite, aloof and out-of-date to fresh, proactive and transparent. Sport is therefore a valuable soft power tool which should no longer be left in the shadows of government policy.
Vietnam and Philippines use sport to reduce tensions in the South China Sea
Australia benefits from an investment in communicating its sporting culture
Scoring for Britain
Two countries lead the global move to include sport in the modernization of diplomatic strategies: the United States and Australia. On the other hand, nations like the United Kingdom are only beginning to explore what sport can do for the statesman.
British diplomacy would benefit from a larger investment in sport for four main reasons:
The first is British sport’s values. In 1922, Lieutenant Colonel Temperley, military attaché at the British embassy in The Hague, reported regarding an international fencing tournament which he attended: “I was approached very early and informed that the organizers regarded the presence of an English team essential not so much on the account of their fencing abilities, but because the fact of our team being there would raise the whole tone of the meeting.” Politeness, good sportsmanship, generosity and gentlemanly behaviour are all synonymous with British sport and can be a powerful soft power tool abroad.
The second British advantage is its sportspeople. From David Beckham to Andy Murray, Lewis Hamilton to Jessica Ennis-Hill, Sir Alex Ferguson to Chris Hoy, in the twenty-first century the UK has an almost unparalleled array of stars which are idolized and respected across the world. Used in ambassadorial roles, these sportspeople can considerably amplify a diplomatic message. They can promote British identity, values and culture abroad, either it being at diplomatic meetings, sporting events or development projects.
Politeness, good sportsmanship, generosity and gentlemanly behaviour are all synonymous with British sport and can be a powerful soft power tool abroad.
The third feature is an institution called English Football Premier League. According to research by the Institute for Government, the Premier League is one of the three most powerful soft power tools of the UK, along with the monarchy and the BBC.
Figures of the British Council show that the Premier League is watched by 4.7 billion people worldwide; and 10 per cent of the world’s population are said to support Manchester United, a club which has been academically defined by researcher Simon Rofe as “a diplomatic non-state actor in international affairs”. Potential partnerships between the British government and the national football industry could, undoubtedly, originate a significant impact on international perceptions.
The fourth and final main advantage of the UK is stability. Foreign perceptions of the country are positive and solid, which means that the UK can afford to plan carefully and wisely, and only tap into the most profitable of sports-diplomacy ventures. It is in no rush to change perceptions abroad.
Stability is, however, also one of the main challenges to the use of sport in diplomacy – both in Britain and across the world. It can mistakenly lead officials to assume that current diplomatic strategies will continue to work for the future.
Theresa May made a brilliant speech last week, but it must not be a lone one. Failure to acknowledge that a reputation is only rented, never owned, can be a challenge to the full embracement of sport as one of the ways to adapt to the ongoing changes in the international political environment. TMM