Sports Diplomacy: A New Way Forward

View of the Olympic rings during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Pyeongchang Stadium on February 9, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / FranÁois-Xavier MARITFRANCOIS-XAVIER MARIT/AFP/Getty Images

In a volatile world, political upheaval, social unrest and even natural events can spell disaster can spell unwary business at a moment’s notice. In this constantly changing world, one has to take up design new strategies and tactical methods to function its way around in this interconnected world. Sports, over the past few years, had developed into a vibrant field and a tool to materialize the nation’s agenda. Organizations such as the International Olympic Committee and Fédération Internationale de Football Association predate the United Nations and are subject to political manoeuvrings every bit as complex as major international organizations. Sports have tremendous marketing potential and a platform where a country can project its ideology, culture, and core values to a mass audience.

Flavian Amphitheatre, Rome, Italy

To what degree can sports sway the national image?  The use of sports for public diplomacy goes back to ancient Greece’s city-states and their engagement in athletic competitions in Olympia.  In modern times, although the purpose of sports diplomacy has somewhat remained intact the way it’s practised has changed. It has become modern, and also a mean to display a country’s position in international politics. This article will focus on how Israel used sports in the most effective way back in 2016 to market its ideology and culture. In this same article, we’ll also see witness that the very same medium has also been responsible for the Munich Massacre.

From 5 to 21 August 2016 Israel competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was the seventeenth appearance at the Summer Olympics for the country. Israel’s Olympic Committee has announced that a team of 47 competitors, 22 men and 25 women will participate at the Games in 17 sports. It was the largest national delegation ever sent to the Olympics, smashing the previous record of 43 athletes in 2018. Among the sports that its athletes represent, Israel made its Olympic debut in golf (new to the 2016 Games), mountain biking, and triathlon, as well as its return to road cycling, taekwondo, weightlifting, and wrestling after long years of absence. The nation’s full roster also hit a remarkable milestone for Israeli women, for the first time being officially outnumbering the men. The Israeli delegation had 14 returning Olympians in attendance. Five of them took part in their third straight games, namely windsurfer and 2008 bronze medalist Shahar Tzuberi, butterfly and medley swimmer Gal Nevo, synchronised swimmer Anastasia Gloushkov, artistic gymnast Alexander Shatilov and rhythmic gymnast Neta Rivkin, who was selected at the opening ceremony as the nation’s flag bearer, the first-ever female since 1996 and fourth in Israel’s Olympics history.

Israel’s flagbearer Neta Rivkin leads her delegation during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, 2016. Image source: PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images

Israel’s participation in Olympics in 2016 is a great study to understand the influence of sports and how it is used as a diplomatic tool and finds its echoes in the international theories such as liberalism and Realism.  The study of Israel is also important because it was followed by controversy for the first time on an International Platform. Before the Olympics, Facebook allowed users to add the Olympic logo and team flag to their profile pictures but Israel was not included in the list. The flag was later added to the list but was not listed alphabetically and was included at the end of the list. Two days before the opening ceremony, the International Olympic Committee addressed the Munich Massacre (1997) for the first time. It took them nearly two decades to address the killings of 11 Israelis.  During the event, a Saudi athlete refused to shake hands with an Israeli athlete and forfeited the match.

These examples are a clear manifestation of hatred towards a particular community, it is also ironical in a sense that a platform which is created to bring countries together is by cross-cultural communication and tactical means to mend country’s reputation internationally.

Sports diplomacy although not a new concept but has been adopted by states to propagate their ideologies all around the world. The power dynamics have shifted from solely concentrated on traditional concepts of security to honing the nation’s soft power skills. One of the greatest examples is how the country’s soft power not only reaches the higher delegates but also affects the general public. However, how sports diplomacy might play out in the theatres of international politics is an interesting narrative to follow and exciting to see it unfold.   

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Simran Kothari

Simran Kothari is a Former Journalism Intern at The Kootneeti

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