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In the past, international relations (IR) mainly focused on the high political issues such as military and economic issues. However, the nature of international politics has changed dramatically recently. Interaction between states is not limited to the high political area but also low political area such as social cultural areas. It is hard to determine which one is more prevalent in this time, but one thing very obvious is the role of low politics is getting broader. In the post Cold War era, there are many cases that low politics have healed in inter-states conflicts which had developed into high politics.
Among these, because of its popularity across the globe, sports plays a significant role in international relations. Modern sports, which was limited to the local, regional or national level in the past, now spread to international level and have access to social and political area. Considering that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has 202 members states, even more than the number the number of UN member states which totals 192, it is obvious that international sport is now an arena of international politics and diplomacy.
Worldwide sports events also have great impact to international relations and politics. With the development of media, related technology and services, people all over the world can sit in front of television, and watch major international sports events at the same time. Thus international sports games are a good opportunity to display a state’s ethnic features or a state’s believed national superiority to their counterparts. In history, many national leaders abused sports games because of such purpose, and sports events were often used as a tool of political and ideological propaganda in international relations. However, at the same time, sports also possesses the aspect of promoting peace and raising mutual understanding in international relations. Many countries took advantage of this aspect of sports to build a positive image of them.
In terms of sports diplomacy, the United States has employed sports as a diplomatic channel throughout the history. However, the way sports has been used was different from time to time due to different international political circumstances which influenced the United States foreign policy. (This paper attempts to analyze how international conflicts were reflected in the Unites States foreign policy and what the strategy of the United States sports diplomacy was. During the Cold War era, the Soviet Union and the United States were the two pillars of the international system. The ideological rivalry between Soviet Union and the United States could represent the international relations in this period. Therefore, the United States practiced sports diplomacy to deteriorate the influence of the Soviet Union to show the superiority of the United States ideology. However, after the collapse of Soviet Union, the United States became the only superpower, resulting in the rapid growth of the influence of the United States in the world.
The political aspects of sports
Sports themselves do not have political value, but when it is practiced as a medium between different countries, it has political contents.
First, sports can be a tool for diplomacy between states, being the first step of engagement between states in a hostile relationship. Exchanging sports between states can imply that both states recognize each other as a nation-state. The United States president Richard Nixon’s use of table tennis to initiate diplomatic relations with China in Cold War era, known as “Ping pong diplomacy”, cited as a prototypical example. The other way around, boycotts of sports game or denial of visa to athletes are seen as ways to break off the relations between states.
Second, sports may serve as an advertisement for spreading ideology. States often use sporting games to show their superiority of ideology. Especially, during the Cold War era, this tendency is often observed in the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. In this period, many of the United Sates legislators worried about the Soviet athletes’ continuous success in international sports games. They saw it in the context of national prestige in the face of communist challenges. They acknowledged that people in the United States would see the sporting defeat by the Soviet Union not as a matter of sports or the athlete, but the matter of national pride. Soviet’s victory in sports games could be interpreted as a victory for the Soviet culture, system and decay of capitalistic way to a certain extent.
Third, sport raises mutual understanding and promotes peace in international relations. Sport exchanges have been served as a way to identify other states and their people, and furthermore, to overcome prejudice against each other. As a result, sports exchange between states often have used as a tool of public diplomacy, considering that the aim of public diplomacy is also to see to foster mutual understanding.
Fourth, it is a safe way of expressing displeasure with other country and its policies because it is a peripheral issue to the international political system. To show discontentment or raise objections about a political issue, using sports is a circumambulate way of expression. The most common means of expressing discontent through sports events is to boycott the sports game. It is regarded as a strategic and low cost alternative to any other political action which states can take. It possibly gives huge influence or pushes on other states without using traditional sense of state power.
Fifth, sports often spark the conflicts that might become the warfare later on. It often initiates or aggravates political conflict in international relations. Since an athlete or a team represents his or their nation, hatred of the counterpart could become an antipathy of the nation.
This ill feeling could draw actual war, like the one between Honduras and El Salvador, most famously known as the Football War, during the World Cup tournament game in 1969. There had been preexisting conflicts between Honduras and Salvadorans, including immigration from El Salvador to Honduras, but the tensions between the two states exploded by the football competition. This match actually triggered the war between Honduras and El Salvador.
Sports as an efficient tool for diplomacy
The United States recently implemented sports diplomacy as a part of its public diplomacy. The United States dispatched famous sports figures as sports diplomacy envoys to increase understanding of the American people and its culture. It is because sports has been highlighted recent times as a newly rising tactic to implement international relations for some reasons.
First, the influence of sports is growing bigger. Sports is now global because of the revolution in the transportation and telecommunication/media industries. Every broadcasting corporation has sports channels and even in the headline coverage they deliver the sports news. Originally, this is initiated due to people’s interest of sports but it reversely started to draw the attention of people who had not been interested in sports. Also, this revolution has created a global sport labor market and global migration, and thus people’s interests in sports extend to international sports. People are cheering for athletes who are their fellow countryman who are playing a game outside of their own country. People often watch sports games not because they are interested in those sports but to see specific national athletes. The sport team owners know this well, and thus they trade foreign athletes to increase its attention and popularity internationally.
The international political environment has also changed. Different from the past when most serious concern for states was national survival through military strength, now there is a covert consensus of non-use of military force in international relations, and thus likelihood of was is decreasing. The level of interdependence among states is heightened and became more complex.
According to Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, the world has moved into an era of ‘complex interdependence’, characterized by ‘multiple channels’ between societies, including both state and non-state channels, such that ‘military security does not consistently dominate the agenda’. Yet, this does not mean that the rate of inter-state conflict is declining. Rather, because of enlarging scope of engagement among nations, there is more possibility of emerging conflicts. The factors of national threat or concern have become more diverse and complex. Therefore, in this changing world, the definition of power in international relations is not same as the Hobbesian explanation. Military force cannot be the best way to solve the conflict or influence other states. These old tools of diplomacy are no longer appropriate in the contemporary world and something more moderate, indirect but efficient and influential way of diplomacy needs to be practiced.
In this context, sports is a good medium, by playing mediating and pivotal role in inter-state relations. Attaching sports to the scope of international relations would be a helpful to boost the size of diplomacy.
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