5 Times Sports Leveled the Diplomatic Playing Field

For decades, there have been tensions between North and South Korea. Yet for the opening ceremony at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the two countries have announced they will march together under a unified flag in what has been called a “diplomatic breakthrough.” The idea of using sports as a diplomatic tool isn’t limited to the Olympics, nor is it a new concept. Here are some times when sports served as an impetus for peace.   

1. The Olympic Truce

When: The ninth century B.C.

Who: Various city-states throughout ancient Greece

What: In ancient Greece, the rulers of different cities participating in the early Olympic Games would sign a treaty that extended from seven days before the Games to seven days afterward. The games served as neutral territory for peaceful dialogues between warring city-states.

Outcome: The treaty ensured the safety of Olympic athletes and attendees as they traveled to the games amid ongoing conflicts between city-states. This concept of the Olympic truce is still upheld by the International Olympic Committee, leading to the establishment of a series of “sport-for-peace” activities

2. Pingpong Diplomacy

When: 1971

Who: China and the United States

What: When the World Table Tennis Championships were held in Japan in 1971, it had been more than 20 years since an official American delegation had traveled to the People’s Republic of China. Yet, as the Chinese and American teams were en route to the championship event, U.S. player Glenn Cowan ended up on a bus with the Chinese national team. Despite orders to avoid contact with the Americans, Zhuang Zedong, the top player from the Chinese team, began a dialogue with Cowan through a translator.

Outcome: After hearing of the interaction, China’s Chairman Mao invited the U.S. team to visit China, which the players accepted. While the team was in China, President Nixon announced the U.S. would relax travel bans and trade embargoes against China. In 1972, Nixon became the first U.S. president to travel to mainland China.

What China had to say about it: “The little ball moves the Big Ball” – Chairman Mao

3. Pin-Down Diplomacy

When: 1998

Who: The United States and Iran

What: U.S. wrestlers competing in the 1998 Takhti Cup received a warm welcome in Tehran as they became the first U.S. sports team to visit Iran since 1979. Since then, the U.S. team has traveled to Iran 14 times to compete in wrestling events.

Outcome: Though the sporting events marked a gradual improvement in relations between the United States and Iran, tensions between the nations started to increase following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. But just recently, the USA Wrestling team announced it would send a delegation to this year’s Freestyle World Cup in Kermanshah, Iran.

4. “A Warm Spring”

When: 2008

Who: China and Japan

What: Amid tensions between China and Japan over border disputes, Tibet, and other issues, China’s President Hu Jintao embarked on a goodwill trip to Japan—becoming the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit the nation in 10 years. He played pingpong with Japanese player Ai Fukuhara, which served as a great photo opportunity.

Outcome: Afterward, Hu referred to his visit as part of a “warm spring” for Chinese-Japanese relations, as the trip helped thaw tensions between the two countries.

What China had to say about it: “I sincerely hope the people of the two countries can maintain friendship generation after generation and create a brighter future for the Sino-Japan friendship.” – Hu Jintao, quoted from a Japanese-language magazine 

5. Take Me Out to the (Cuban) Ball Game

When: 2016

Who: Cuba and the United States

What: After 54 years, the U.S. reopened its embassy in Cuba on July 20, 2015. In 2016, when President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since 1928, he accompanied Cuban President Raul Castro to a baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays.

Outcome: Obama was criticized by Republican members of Congress when he refused to cut the trip short despite terror attacks in Brussels. Though the Obama administration took bold steps to repair diplomatic relations with Cuba, President Trump’s administration has said the U.S. would significantly scale back, but not necessarily break, these ties.

What the U.S. had to say about it: "[Sports] can change attitudes sometimes in ways that a politician can never change, that a speech can’t change." – President Obama

Sports continues to be recognized as a powerful tool of diplomacy and peace. According to the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace: “Sport programmes permit encounters on neutral territory and in an environment where aggression can be controlled, regulated and transformed and hence facilitates rapprochement and reconciliation between opposing parties.”

While competing under a unified flag may not resolve all tensions between North and South Korea, it is perhaps a hopeful step in the right diplomatic direction.

Share this on social media:

Facebook |   LinkedIn |   Pinterest |   Twitter

Citation for this content: American University’s International Relations Online Program