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  • Sports and Collective Identity:The Effects of Athletics on National Unity
  • Kari L. Jaksa (bio)

Sports are a formidable force for good at the national level, positively contributing to the formation of national identity. They also engender national unity and are an important mechanism of foreign policy, as they offer a unique arena through which diplomatic relations may be pursued. International sporting competitions like the Olympics and the World Cup bring together dignitaries, athletes, heads of state, and other national representatives, creating a forum that assists in the development of understanding and cooperation. Thus, despite evidence of their globalization, sports continue to retain an important national core that can act as a channel of soft power. Through the sports medium, underserved nations across the world create for themselves an identity and a voice, enabling them to be heard on the international stage.

For many countries, sports are a major component of national identity. Often, these countries are defined as much by their sporting pursuits as they are by their politics, economy, and geography. National sports act as a common thread, woven through society to connect citizens to one another. Such sports vary from nation to nation; in Canada, hockey is king. New Zealanders relish rugby, while India's most widely followed sport is cricket. In China, table tennis is a significant part of the national fabric. American football fervor is ubiquitous in the United States, and, while soccer is prevalent worldwide, every nation exhibits its own distinct iteration of the game.

World leaders recognize the importance of sports, both as an element of their nations' cultures and as a tool for diplomacy. Heads of state often utilize international sporting events as an opportunity to represent their country. The 2010 World Cup final alone, held in South Africa, was attended by at least fifteen heads of state, including delegations from all over Africa.1 German Chancellor Angela Merkel and South African President Jacob Zuma also attended. The Opening Ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver drew similar numbers of dignitaries, including U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Jan Fischer of the Czech Republic, Prince Albert II of [End Page 39] Monaco, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.2 For these leaders, major sporting events serve as an opportunity to reach out to their peers in a slightly informal and relaxed setting.

Sports diplomacy is used regularly to overcome significant differences between nations. One of the most prominent examples of this was the famed "ping pong diplomacy" campaign of the 1970s, which saw the exchange of table tennis players between China and the United States. U.S. President Richard Nixon used this event to induce further openness in U.S.-China relations. Sports diplomacy continues to be prominent today, as was evidenced during the 2008 qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup. One of the matches pitted Armenia against Turkey and, in order to mitigate tensions between the two nations which harkened back to the 1915 Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkey, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Turkish President Abdullah Gül sat together and shook hands as an expression of goodwill and friendship.3

At the country level, sports present a foundation upon which national unity can be built. They are especially important in deeply divided or war torn nations, where they can offer a much needed respite from conflict and a common ground from which to begin reconciliation. Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani recognized this fact on November 11, 2010, when he referred to sports as "vital to the promotion of national unity."4 There are a multitude of instances in the last two decades alone in which nations have rallied around sports as a unifying factor. For example:

  • • Following the collapse of apartheid and the subsequent election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa's first black president in 1994, racial tensions continued to permeate the nation, threatening to plunge it into civil war. While the black majority generally played and watched soccer, the white Afrikaner minority supported the Springboks, South Africa's rugby team. To black, Indian, and colored South Africans who suffered under apartheid, the Springboks were a symbol of hatred and oppression.

  • • South...


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