International Sport as Cultural Diplomacy

Football Bringing People Together during FIFA World Cup 2018

April 15th, 2019
Anastasia Petrova, News from Berlin
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Ever since the ancient Greeks, sport has been seen as an instrument of diplomacy. They founded the Olympic competition originally to honor the greatest of the Greek gods, Zeus. The Games were held every four years lasting up to 3 months. Starting from the ninth century, they called an Olympic Truce for this period of time, a military cease-fire among all the spectators and athletes, during these weeks even death penalties were forbidden. The competition was also an opportunity to deal with inter-city hostilities in a peaceful way. These months were also a time for political congress or even forming alliances. The athletes were able to gain honor, political power and social status through their outstanding performance.

Joseph Nye describes soft power as the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. For instance a country is able to use sports to promote their cultural heritage, history and furthermore to show national prowess and economic success. Sport is also big business, and hosting the football World Cup, Olympic Games, or even lower-profile tournaments, is greatly beneficial for countries. Countries used to boycott the Olympics for political reasons, like the US in the 1980 Games in Moscow, in order to show their opposition of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Sport also proved to be an effective oppositional tool against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Moreover, successes of national teams or athletes are usually interpreted as the achievements of their country of origin. For instance, the victory of the Japanese football team against the USA in the Women’s World Cup Final was seen as an evidence of the nation’s recovery after the devastating earthquake and tsunami which occurred in March 2011.

There is a widespread belief that sport unifies, breaks down barriers between people, it has the power to make “society” more equal, socially cohesive and peaceful”. Through sport one can be included, and can gain recognition and self-esteem by performing outstanding and being recognized in any kind of sports. While participating in sport activities people can build up interethnic experiences, develop trust in others. People tend to trust others more after some kind of successful contact. It can be an assist perfectly delivered, or a match, competition fully entertaining. If you are open and show respect to others participating in the same sport activity, they tend to accept you without even thinking about your skin color, race, religion, or any other different characteristics you might have.

In the case of international competitions, set up by supranational organizations, Heads of State or Ministers have the opportunity to meet in a peaceful framework. However, states may also utilize sport to enhance their national prestige, highlight their rise on the international stage, and make use of their soft power to extend their regional and global influence. All in all, one thing must be recognized: sport can bring the people together, by giving the chance for a peaceful dialogue to take place in a peaceful context.

The most recent example of this is the FIFA World Cup 2018 that was held in Russia. During the competition, Vladimir Putin scored important diplomatic points. World leaders have been making their way to Moscow for the games, raising Putin's stature and putting Russia at the center of the geopolitical action. The kickoff match between Saudi Arabia and Russia was a case in point: Putin played host to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ahead of the first match on June 14. The Saudi side lost 5-0 to Russia, but the Kremlin leader and the Crown Prince used the visit to underscore their close cooperation to bolster global oil prices. Putin's World Cup charm offensive continued this week. UN Secretary-General António Guterres travelled to Russia to meet Putin and attend a World Cup soccer match between Portugal and Morocco on Tuesday. And Putin will host South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a three-day visit, fresh from the talks between US President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un. Moon will give a speech at Russia's State Duma, the lower house of parliament, then go to the southern city of Rostov to catch the Korea-Mexico World Cup game.

It's a page out of Putin's playbook for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, an occasion additionally intended to assert Russia's certain return to the world stage. Be that as it may, there's a difference with 2018: during the Sochi Olympics, Russia was a paid-up individual from the worldwide network. However, it ended with Russian annexation of Crimea. Relations between the West and Russia have remained rocky since then. Leaders from the US and Western Europe have been conspicuously absent at Putin's World Cup.

Apart from some of the best footballing performance, the World Cup also brings in a huge number of tourists to the host nation. It is an opportunity for travelers to experience the country's tradition, do some sightseeing and indulge in local food. Russian authorities have gone a long way to present the country in the best light possible, instructing police to smile, removing stray dogs, and even reportedly renovating holding cells and equipping them with TVs so any detained troublemakers could still keep up with the tournament. Meanwhile, ordinary Russians seem eager to make their visitors feel welcome. Many of them go to fan zones to talk, celebrate and party with foreign visitors. According to Russian media, this mass-scale contact between Russia and the rest of the world could have far-reaching consequences after years of propaganda from all sides.

Irina Petrovskaya from Novaya Gazeta wrote that “the good meaning of it is that, apparently, this gloomy and semi-isolated country, after many years of television urging it to hate foreigners and be proud of God knows what, is fawning over this soccer holiday and the possibility of walking together with exotic 'newcomers' on city streets.” Regarding the masses of good-spirited foreign soccer fans traveling to Russia, economist Igor Nikolayev writes: "We are supposed to believe that those people are representatives of countries who want to harm Russia? Nonsense. Then why should we lock ourselves up in this 'fortress' that nobody is about to besiege? No, nobody is besieging us. We can see it and know it. If you have your doubts, go along to Moscow's Nikolskaya Street, the most intense fan-zone of the championship. Go on, you won't regret it."

"Dear god, we are a part of the world," says documentary filmmaker Yulia Melamed in her column for the government-critical "It turns out, we are sane, everyone loves us, we love everyone. This experience of joy and unity, of feeling like a part of Europe is not just going to go away. It will stay and cause changes. Maybe even revolutionary changes. Revolutions don't happen on the streets, they happen inside your heads," Melamed writes.

In the end, sport can be used as an efficient tool of cultural diplomacy. Through the promotion of physical activity and sporting events, individuals as well as nations, have the opportunity to achieve greater mutual understanding and acceptance of common peaceful values, based on the respect of one another’s culture.


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