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Sporting Diplomacy: Boosting the Size of the Diplomatic Corps
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The Washington Quarterly 23.4 (2000) 63-70

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Sporting Diplomacy:
Boosting the Size of the Diplomatic Corps

Jeremy Goldberg

In a world without a clear rival, the foreign policy of the United States has increasingly focused on "rogue states," or "states of concern," that flout international norms and remain outside the community of democratic nations. Despite the best efforts of the United States, Fidel Castro and Cuba continue to ignore U.S. unilateral sanctions and celebrate their latest victory--Elian Gonzalez's return, North Korea vacillates on its commitment to nuclear accords while developing long-range ballistic missiles, and Iran continues to distrust the intentions of the Great Satan. Maybe the best way to encourage these states to come out of their isolation is to increase the size of the diplomatic corps--literally. Sports exchanges between the United States and Cuba, North Korea, or Iran can break down stereotypes, increase understanding, and confine battles to the playing field rather than the battlefield. They are a "safe" way to ease a country out of isolation, acting as a first step of engagement, if not the first step.

On the eve of the first Olympics of the new millennium, it is appropriate to reflect on the role that sports have played in international politics in the past century. More important, in a post-Cold War world largely devoid of ideological conflict, sports offer new promise in advancing global integration and cooperation.

Sport Is Politics through Other Means

Avery Brundage, former president of the International Olympics Committee, once said that "sports is completely free of politics." 1 Brundage's apolitical vision is based on a romanticized conception that ignores the larger [End Page 63] political context in which sports operate. As early as the first Olympic festival in 776 B.C.E., the Greeks viewed sports as a vehicle to unify the civilized world in spite of political differences. Moreover, the Olympic Charter concedes that at the heart of the modern Olympic movement is a desire to contribute "to building a peaceful and better world." 2 Governments have recognized the political importance of athletic success as well as the value of promoting the health and well being of its citizenry. Accordingly, sports have become a diplomatic tool, as governments have used boycotts, sports propagandizing, denial of visas, sports assistance, hosting of Olympics, and sports exchanges to further political aims. 3

Not only do sports often have political purposes, but they also are affected by politics. Political conflict has long appeared in sports, whether it is communism vs. capitalism, amateurism vs. professionalism, nationalism vs. internationalism, or integration vs. segregation. One need only remember the image of black U.S. athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their black-gloved clenched fists during the national anthem at the 1968 Olympics to appreciate the inseparability of sports and politics. 4

During the twentieth century, sports assumed ideological dimensions as countries used athletics to validate political systems and beliefs. During the 1936 Olympics, commonly referred to as the Nazi Games, Adolf Hitler attempted to demonstrate Aryan superiority through the performance of German athletes at the games in Berlin. Although Germany did win the most medals, Jesse Owens of the United States sprinted to five gold medals and helped discredit Hitler's beliefs, in front of his own people.

Ideology in athletic competition was even more pronounced during the Cold War when communist countries used sports to promote relations with procommunist countries, win support among developing states, and demonstrate the superiority of a socialist model. Castro once commented, "One day, when the Yankees accept peaceful coexistence with our country, we shall beat them at baseball too and then the advantages of revolutionary over capitalist sport will be clear to all." 5 Romania even went so far as to pass a law in 1967 that declared physical training and sports in the national interest and a precondition for social progress. Communist sports were oriented on Olympic success, as massive funds and bureaucracies were devoted to the state-controlled sports apparatus. Countries such as the USSR and the People's...