Is sport diplomacy really diplomacy?
This blog will make the case ‘sport diplomacy’ is far from being a form of diplomacy and will then move to highlight the structural limits of some features associated with such practice. The case study of the South Korean Lee Eun-Ju and North Korean Hong Un-Jong gymnasts’ selfie will be taken as an example.
Before questioning whether ‘sport diplomacy’ is a form of diplomacy or not, it is necessary to question what diplomacy is. Berridge seems to provide a simple and useful definition: “Diplomacy consists of communication between officials designed to promote foreign policy” (Berridge, 2005). Athletes and sports organizations’ chiefs can hardly be considered officials representing any government. Being representation a major feature of diplomacy together with communication, these actors not representing and not being accountable to any government and not engaging in communication designed to promote foreign policy are not diplomats.
The point could be raised that despite of not being diplomats, such actors still engage in diplomacy. Berridge himself acknowledges that: “Diplomacy is not merely what professional diplomatic agents do. It is carried out by private persons under the direction of officials”. This, however, does not apply to athletes and sports organizations’ chiefs insofar as they do not engage in communication with officials to promote foreign policy. What they rather do, in the positive cases, is providing the tool upon which officials can operate for the sake of promoting their country’s foreign policy.
In the glorified example of the ‘Ping-Pong diplomacy’ (Wheeler, 2017), improved Chinese-American relations were not produced by the two Ping-Pong delegations’ friendly meetings but rather by the two governments’ capability of capitalizing on it. The athletes merely provided the tool upon which diplomacy was performed, they did not engaged in diplomacy themselves. The point could be raised that the use of the term ‘sport diplomacy’ comes from the practice of confounding the aims of diplomacy with its means.
Leaving aside the issue of terminology, there are some features of this practice that can equally be contested. By means of ‘sport diplomacy’ it is believed that opposing sides can create “opportunities to build and sustain durable, ongoing and peaceful relations” and that it can “reduce tensions between states at odds with one another that thus lacked conventional channels of diplomatic relations” (Wheeler, 2017).
The case of the South and North Korean gymnasts that awed the web by taking a selfie together highlights the limits of that.
The friendly gesture, in fact, had no impact on the strained relations between two countries still at war made even more sensible at that moment by recent missile launches from the North (BBC, 2016).
In positive examples such as the Ping-Pong diplomacy, ‘sports diplomacy’ worked as a tool for tension reduction because it reflected a genuine desire by both actors to decrease tensions. ‘Sport diplomacy’, just as real diplomacy, work only insofar it leads the involved countries in the direction they want to pursue. ‘Sport diplomacy’ is no magic conflict resolution formula but merely a tool upon which diplomacy can operate.
Berridge G. (2005), Diplomacy Theory and Practice, page 1, UK and US.
Wheeler M. (2017), Sports And Diplomacy, UK.
BBC (2016), North and South Korean Gymnasts Pose for Olympic Selfie, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-37018914.