During each match in the 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup, millions of global viewers heard referees repeatedly issue these four commands to the two opposing sides in a rugby scrum. The scrum, which demands a complex balance of effective communication, positioning, and ball skills and requires cooperation from both sets of competitors in order for the game to proceed, is emblematic of the challenges of contemporary diplomacy and the communication tasks that are ever more integral to its success. International sporting competition has played a role in diplomacy since at least as long ago as the ancient Olympiad. The Olympic Truce, during which time warring governments suspended conflict to enable competitors and spectators to travel to and attend the Olympic Games, consecrated the principle that sports are integral to diplomacy’s mission of mediating estrangement and overcoming alienation between governments and between peoples. Competitors in international sporting events have always possessed the capacity to represent their governments, peoples (and sponsoring firms) not only to foreign governments but to specific foreign populations and to the global public more broadly. Spectators supporting different sides at live international sporting events are brought together, ideally at least, by a shared love of the game. The communicative power of international sport has been amplified dramatically by the revolution in information and communications technologies over the past several decades, which has enabled the audience for major sporting events to expand by word of mouth to over one third of the global population who at least have access to audio broadcasting. This transformation has in effect made international sport a primary avenue through which public diplomacy is communicated and implemented. Yet, the means by which public diplomacy interacts with international sport has been paid scant attention as of late.
To address the broader need for research on the relationship between international sports and diplomacy, Drs. J. Simon Rofe (University of London – SOAS), Stuart Murray (Bond University) and I co-founded the Diplomacy and International Sport research group in 2011. One of our early observations was that a significant portion of the functions of sporting events fall under the heading of public diplomacy. At a recent paper presented to the International Studies Association’s 2012 annual conference, Stuart Murray and I proposed a taxonomy for understanding how international sport and diplomacy interact, each category of which applies to public diplomacy. At the broadest level, we distinguish between international sport used as a tool of diplomacy by governments, on the one hand, and international sport-as-diplomacy, on the other. The former category tends to be better known to students of diplomacy than the latter, but international sport plays a significant part in public diplomacy through both categories.
Governments Using International Sport as a PD Tool
International sport is one of many public diplomacy instruments in a government’s toolbox. When governments use sport as a tool for carrying out PD, it can be in the service of traditional, haute politique, security-related objectives. One of the most common objectives of this kind of diplomacy is to secure popular support for diplomatic engagements and relationships. When the governments of the United States and the People’s Republic of China agreed that a U.S. ping pong team would tour China in 1971, one of the primary objectives of both governments was to use the tour to gauge how each country’s population would react to the prospect of a thawing in and eventual normalization of relations between the two governments. The ping pong tour received major media coverage in each country. Both governments’ assessments of public reactions to the tour were very positive, which paved the way for U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s visit to China a few months later and President Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit the following year.
In a more troubled diplomatic relationship, governments may choose to communicate to a foreign public as part of a strategy, seeking to influence that population’s government. Again, sport is an important instrument in the PD toolbox. Yet in such situations, a government’s decision not to play can also be seen as an effective message to the foreign public. When the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) decided that England’s cricket side would not play a World Cup match scheduled to be played in Zimbabwe as part of the South Africa-hosted 2003 World Cup owing to concerns about players’ security, the U.K. government was faced with a difficult choice from a public diplomacy standpoint. The International Cricket Council had decided that the ECB’s security concerns were not valid reasons for refusing to play, meaning that failure to compete would result in forfeiture of the match to Zimbabwe. The U.K. government was aware that, irrespective of the merits of the security question, its position would be interpreted by the global public in the context of the troubled Zimbabwe-U.K. diplomatic relationship. By deciding to support the ECB’s decision not to play the match, the Westminster government garnered approval from a broad swathe of the global public by taking a principled stand against the tyranny and human rights violations of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, whilst risking the alienation of a significant minority of the global public who sympathize with Mugabe’s anti-colonial rhetoric. It was difficult for the U.K. to score a clean ‘win’ in public diplomacy terms. Likewise, it was challenging to measure the impact of the government’s decision on public opinion in relevant countries, Zimbabwe and South Africa in particular.
By far the largest public diplomacy component of how international sport is used as a diplomatic tool falls under the rubric of place branding and its concomitant promotion of investment, trade, and tourism. Over the past century a number of governments have attempted with varying success to use sport as an identifier in the minds of the global public to represent an idealized image of their desired state and society. Hitler’s National Socialist government in Germany sought to use the 1936 Berlin Olympiad as a showcase for Nazi accomplishments and values, but faced international opprobrium for its attempts to exclude non-‘Aryan’ competitors. After World War II, the Soviet Union and its satellite states (particularly the German Democratic Republic) invested heavily in programs to train international-standard competitors in many sports in order to be seen as dominant on the global stage; the Olympics rapidly came to symbolize this effort as television became ubiquitous in Western industrialized countries. The Soviet Government made it a mark of achievement, particularly in the eyes of the publics in its satellite states and across the developing world, to best the United States and other Western competitors in Olympic medal totals. In various instances, however, these substantial sporting accomplishments were tarnished by subsequent revelations that competitors had used performance-enhancing substances that, if not banned already, were later proscribed.
More recently, international sporting events have been viewed by many governments as an ideal venue for place branding to showcase a country, its cities, and its people to the world as attractive destinations for tourism and investment. Place branding is by definition the transmission of information and images of a country to familiarize the global public with the nation and thereby enhance its reputation. National governments routinely team up with domestic sporting federations, local governments, and private sector interests (sponsoring firms etc.) to bid for, finance, and coordinate the hosting of such events. ‘Mega-events’ such as the Olympic Games, World Cups of major sports such as soccer/association football, rugby, cricket, major competitions of ‘tour’ sports such as tennis (e.g. the Australian Open and Wimbledon), golf (e.g. the U.S. Masters), cycling (e.g. the Tour de France), and motor sports (e.g. Formula 1’s Malaysian Grand Prix) offer a range of channels for place branding. Thousands of spectators travel to sporting mega-events to view the competition live, many of whom combine their spectator visit with additional tourism in country. Many global travel, lodging, leisure, and tourism firms have the opportunity to bid on and participate in the construction and operation of the infrastructure required to host these competitions. These firms can become key partners for governments in tourism promotion both during and after the sporting event. Global media coverage of the competition – print, television, radio, and internet – can serve as a continuous, extended, advertisement of the merits of the host country sometimes reaching over half of the world’s population, which translates as a boon to the host country if the games are perceived as a success.
Two recent success stories in terms of place branding and promotion of investment and tourism have been the 2008 Beijing Olympiad and the 2010 Football (Soccer) World Cup in South Africa. The Chinese government spared no effort in producing an Olympic Games that showcased China as a country at the forefront of technology. As a direct result of the Games, China was perceived to have the most sophisticated infrastructure and facilities, and people who are open, friendly, welcoming, and worldly. The creation of architecturally superb facilities such as the Bird’s Nest stadium and the staging of complex, spectacular, and culturally rich spectacles at the opening and closing ceremonies conveyed these images of China to a global audience numbering in the billions. Even shutting down major industrial production in the Beijing province for two months was not too high a price to pay for having cleaner air during the Olympics, which created a somewhat illusory impression of China’s accomplishments in environmental management. Prior to the 2010 Football World Cup there were concerns that South Africa, the first African nation to hold a global sporting mega-event, would be pressed to provide adequate transport and lodging infrastructure for spectators and would be unable to guarantee the security of competitors and visitors because of high crime rates following the 1994 transition to majority rule. The South African government took on the challenge of showing live spectators and the global media audience a nation that is developed economically, rich in opportunities for tourism and investment, and above all safe for visitors. They undertook a massive infrastructure program, including new construction and major refurbishing of ten stadiums around the country, significant rebuilding and expansion of the country’s motorway network, and construction of the initial leg of Africa’s first high-speed rail system to connect O.R. Tambo International Airport to central Johannesburg. To ensure effective security provisions, the government assumed significant additional police powers including the creation of special courts to deal with violations during the World Cup on an expedited basis, integrated the nation’s military into the security infrastructure, put a huge number of additional law enforcement personnel onto the streets of cities hosting matches, and resettled dwellers from informal settlements (shantytowns) near World Cup venues to other locations.
In proportion to their size, smaller countries have also benefited, from place branding, investment, and tourism promotion by hosting international sporting events. Regional competitions for major sports and international competitions in sports with smaller or niche followings can bring a significant number of visitors in keeping with the capacity of small and mid-sized venues and provide a measure of international media visibility. For the Cook Islands (CI), a Pacific island state in free association with New Zealand with a total population of around 13,000, tourism is the largest industry bringing in approximately 100,000 visitors annually. Over the past decade the islands have undertaken several projects to construct competition facilities, including a 3000-seat national stadium for outdoor events and an indoor stadium. These investments paid off handsomely in terms of securing significant international sporting competitions of appropriate scale and scope. For instance, the islands hosted the quadrennial Pacific Mini Games, in which competitors from 22 Pacific nations compete in 15 sports, the world youth netball championships, in which 20 national teams from around the world were expected, and the Air New Zealand-sponsored Golden Oldies Rugby Mini Festival. Of perhaps even greater impact in shaping the CI brand identity in the minds of international spectators, however, is the participation of Cook Islands competitors, both CI residents and the diaspora community, in major international sporting competitions abroad. The Cook Islands won the ‘bowl’ competition at the 2009 Wellington 7s, one of the major international rugby 7s events, accruing CI positive publicity through the 34,500 in attendance and the millions worldwide watching the television coverage.
International Sport-As-Diplomacy and PD
Since its inception, international sporting competition has been organized primarily by civil society, not by governments: for example, national sporting federations host international events (e.g the tennis French Open at Stade Roland Garros); international sporting bodies organize tour events across many countries (e.g. the FIS – International Ski Federation World Cup), major events in single or paired countries (e.g. the International Cricket Council cricket World Cup finals); and private international sporting bodies host major tour events (e.g. the Formula 1 motor racing tour). International sporting competitions take place with or without support from or engagement with governments. However, when international sporting events take place diplomatic relations between nations are affected. Hence governments’ public diplomacy strategies and results are affected as well. International sport-as-diplomacy has an impact upon public diplomacy in two significant ways. The first is the direct effect of international sporting competition upon diplomacy between governments, which affect how those governments conduct public diplomacy and what they accomplish with it. The second is the specialized diplomacy of international sport: the diplomacy and public diplomacy that that international sporting bodies, such as non state diplomatic actors like the International Olympic Committee and FIFA (the Federation Internationale de Football Association), must conduct to carry out their mission of organizing international sporting competitions.
International sport-as-diplomacy affects the public diplomacy of nations directly in a number of ways. One of the most important effects is when a domestic sporting league succeeds in becoming the league of choice for the highest level of global competitors in a sport. The National Basketball Association (NBA) in the United States, the (soccer/football) English Premier League (EPL) in the United Kingdom, the National Hockey League (NHL) in Canada and the United States, and more recently the (cricket) Indian Premier League (IPL) in India attract the best players worldwide in their respective sports to play for different teams in the league. Hence each season of the league and each game/match between any two teams in the league qualifies as an international competition of note. For the nation in which the league resides, the league provides a major public diplomacy and place branding venue, which presents along with it both opportunities and risks. On the positive side, global fans of the sport are attracted to the host country to watch games in which their home country players are competing. Millions of fans follow the league globally, giving each city’s team a global in addition to a metropolitan and national fan base. This creates further opportunities for particularly famous sides like the EPL’s Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea to undertake tours of the Americas and Asia, further increasing their global visibility. Governments are not in a position to engineer the dominance of their nation’s league in the global marketplace for a particular sport as part of their PD strategy. Yet they reap the benefits from the generally positive national image that the presence of a top sporting league engenders worldwide. However, a scandal or other events that bring a league and its reputation into disrepute can bring with it a serious hit to the national brand, which governments are similarly limited in their capacity to remedy. Scandals in Italy’s Serie A and Serie B football/soccer leagues in 2006 and 2011 devalued the reputation of Italian football across Europe, which may affect potential investors in tandem with Italy’s ongoing reputation for political corruption, even as Italian tourism continues to benefit from a superior global brand (with the fifth highest global tourist arrivals in 2008).
Foreign players competing in top leagues abroad can bring PD benefits to their country of origin as well as PD advantages to the country in which the league operates. When Chinese basketball player Yao Ming played for the NBA’s Houston Rockets in the 2000s, he attracted a huge fan following in China, in Houston and around the United States, amongst the worldwide Chinese diaspora, and amongst global basketball fans. Attendance at NBA games, NBA TV ratings and merchandise sales, and participation (players and spectators) in China’s domestic basketball league all benefited from Yao Ming’s presence. However, to achieve PD success for their home nations, their teams and their host leagues, players must be PD ambassadors in every respect, in that intense media scrutiny means that their lives off the pitch/court/field are on view just as much as their competitive lives. In a more notorious incident of disreputable behavior off the pitch, talented Romanian footballer Adrian Mutu, who played for EPL side Chelsea, was suspended in 2004 after testing positive for cocaine use and was linked by tabloid newspapers to purported sex-and-drugs sessions with prostitutes. The Mutu scandal did no favors for the reputations of either Romania or the EPL, which at the time was already dealing with the high-living lifestyles of their players and their partners being lampooned by the globally popular TV soap opera Footballers’ Wives, which ran from 2002 to 2006.
Governments can also suffer negative effects on their public diplomacy efforts when they are unable to meet basic requirements of international sporting bodies for planned competitions to take place, such as security, freedom from labor disputes and threats to health and safety. For example, the management of Formula One decided to cancel the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix in light of the political unrest in Bahrain during the Arab Spring uprisings. The decision came as a blow to the Bahraini government, which had been at pains to convince Formula One organizers that they could provide adequate security for teams and drivers. The annual Grand Prix is one of Bahrain’s most highly visibile place branding events. Continued unrest led the holding of the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix to be cast into doubt as well, with government officials once again taking great pains to communicate to Formula One officials and the sport’s global fan base that Bahrain is a safe and welcoming venue for the event.
The other major way that international sport-as-diplomacy affects public diplomacy is through the specialized diplomacy of international sport. In order for a major international sporting competition to take place, it requires an organization to coordinate and manage it. In many cases, including the Olympics and many sports that hold World Cup format tournaments (e.g. soccer/football, cricket, rugby, basketball, etc.), the facilitating organization is an international sporting body constituted of representatives of national and in some cases regional sporting federations. Producing an Olympiad or World Cup tournament requires extensive diplomatic negotiation and communication with all of the stakeholders in an event: host country and city governments, global firms that sponsor the event, global media firms that broadcast it, and in some cases civil society organizations concerned with issues such as human rights and environmental protection. Moreover, international sporting bodies must continually communicate with all of the partnering national and regional sporting federations and, in some cases, the individual competitors themselves. Hence in order to achieve their objectives, international sporting bodies must be in the business of diplomacy on their own behalf: representation, communication, negotiation, promotion, and all of the other activities that diplomats of governments and of other non-state actors (e.g. the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, etc.) do. They must hire professionals skilled at these types of tasks to practice the specialized diplomacy of the organization full time.
One of the keys to success for international sporting bodies like the International Rugby Board and the Federation of International Lacrosse is that they must be perceived by all of their interlocutors, and to at least some degree by the global fan base, as legitimate and competent. Thus, each organization needs to undertake its own public diplomacy: to inform the global public about its purpose and promote its objectives. All major sporting organizations have their own rich and informative websites, which often promote the organization in ambitious, if not to say grandiose, terms linking the importance of sport with world peace, economic development, education, inclusiveness, and other lofty human values. The mission statement of the IOC reads much like a global human rights charter. The first detailed objective in the IOC mission statement is: ‘to encourage and support the promotion of ethics in sport as well as the education of youth through sport and to dedicate its efforts to ensuring that, in sport, the spirit of fair play prevails and violence is banned’. Similarly, FIFA’s mission phrase is: ‘'(d)evelop the game, touch the world, build a better future’, or, in other words: ‘(w)e see it as our mission to contribute towards building a better future for the world by using the power and popularity of football.’
The difficulty that many international sporting bodies face from a PD perspective is that public perception of their actions regularly falls short of the image that they seek to project. Organizations like the IOC and FIFA have been beset by scandals in recent years that have called into question their adherence to principles of sound governance and transparency. Accusations of bribes being paid by bidders for the 2002 Winter Olympics and, more recently, the resignation of Caribbean football federation president Jack Warner amidst accusations of direct attempts to influence the 2011 FIFA presidential election cast serious doubt upon the probity of the governance of international sporting bodies. For both the IOC and FIFA, the scandals set in motion processes of reform intended to increase operational transparency and enforce higher ethical standards that, in FIFA’s case anyway, are far from complete. The difficulty for the PD of international sporting bodies, as for that of governments and other institutions, is that reputational damage often takes much longer to repair than it did to occur. Yet sporting organizations are in the somewhat fortunate position that when next they produce another Olympiad or World Cup, if the event is a great success in the eyes of the global public it distracts public attention at least somewhat from the ongoing impact of potential scandals.
International Sport and Public Diplomacy: Looking Forward
As governments seek to make decisions about how best to incorporate international sport into their PD strategies, and as international sporting bodies seek to use PD most effectively in pursuit of their missions going forward, both are faced with the most common challenge for any PD practitioner: how to measure and assess the effectiveness of PD strategies effectively. Whilst the impact of specific, discrete initiatives, such as an Indian cricket tour of Pakistan, on the target country’s public can be measured through polling before and after the tour the impact of ongoing PD strategies geared towards place branding and investment promotion is inherently more difficult to capture. Similarly, it can be difficult to disaggregate the effect of a particular sport-related PD initiative or of a particular scandal on ongoing public perceptions of a government or international sporting body. To what extent will a hugely successful 2014 football/soccer World Cup in Brazil neutralize negative public perceptions of FIFA resulting from the 2011 scandal? Only time will tell. The impact of any given PD event or negative data point may be marginal at most. One of the objectives of the Diplomacy and International Sport research group is to collate best practices for measuring and assessing sport-related PD and to use that information to generate normative recommendations for government strategies and for reforms to international sporting bodies. The relationship between international sport and public diplomacy is still in its infancy, so the opportunities for each to serve the other better remain vast.
Geoffrey Allen Pigman, B.A. (Swarthmore College), M.A. (The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies),D. Phil. (University of Oxford). Visiting Fellow, Department of
Political Sciences, University of Pretoria; Visiting Research Fellow, Center for Global Change and Governance, Rutgers University – Newark, and Research Associate, Institute for Global Dialogue (Pretoria, South Africa). His principal areas of research are contemporary diplomacy, international
trade politics, and foreign economic policy making. Publications include The World Economic Forum: A Multi-stakeholder approach to global governance (Routledge, 2006) and Contemporary Diplomacy (Polity Press, 2010). Founding member of the Diplomacy and International Sport research group.