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Sport Diplomacy's Influence to Address Inequality

Updated: Oct 21, 2022

On the 28th of April, Sport&EU’s board member, Aashika Doshi led and chaired a discussion on sport diplomacy’s influence to address inequality. The discussion explored the multi-dimensional nature of sport diplomacy and creating layers of influence. Governments utilise sport diplomacy thoughtfully to craft and align themselves with positive sporting values that are diplomatically far-reaching (Murray, 2011). However, sport diplomacy has socio-political impacts. These impacts occur through creating an inclusionary environment with the sentiment of sportsmanship to abide by an agreed set of rules. Sport generates a far-reaching platform for athletes, particularly for those who participate in elite-level sport. Sometimes seen to represent universal values, where elite athletes can be viewed to be global citizens.

Therefore by extension, athletes, or diplomats in tracksuits showcase the opportunities that sport diplomacy can provide through exuding relational attraction enabling representation, communication and negotiation (Rofe, 2019: Tiessen, 2011). Invited speakers, Ashton Hewitt, Amran Malik and blog co-author Lindsay Krasnoff held the perfect combination of the above perspectives to explore the influence that sport diplomacy can have to address inequality.

The first guiding theme addressed by the panel discussed why sport diplomacy is used as a tool to lead and influence positive changes regarding policy development, how it can improve cross-border relationships, and the ways that these uses can promote equality. Krasnoff explained that athletes are in unique positions to observe first-hand the sports world's intersection with international affairs. “They are a type of frontline worker, a sports diplomacy actor who can interact globally in ways that other citizens do not experience on a regular basis”.

Socio-political impacts are effectively generated using sport diplomacy. This occurs through effective initiatives reflecting conscious intentionality of efforts. These efforts aim to be sustainable in nature and part of an ongoing dialogue rather than a one-off program. Moreover, as more athletes, whether elite, professional, amateur, or youth, engage with sport diplomacy, they are increasingly empowered to use its unique power through storytelling, to promote equality and inclusion.

Sport diplomacy provides an important platform to discuss these issues. Athlete voices are important to international relations as they can cut through the cacophony in ways that other public figures struggle to. Sportspeople have access to parts of society that may be more marginal, or underrepresented. That’s why they’re able to come across as more authentic and can use their platforms to bridge divides outside of the game. Diplomats, on the other hand, engage in work that is sometimes hard to define, can come across as elitist, must adhere to certain public diplomacy talking points, or may seem intimidating and inaccessible to some parts of the population who are not fully aware of what constitutes a diplomat’s role or acts of diplomacy. Diplomats face personal security challenges that may prevent them from becoming effectively acquainted with certain communities. Hence, it is here that the sports world comes in, for its power to reach all strata of society. Malik discussed his work with Wicketz, a charity that uses cricket to bring together kids aged 8 to 19 in minority communities in Luton (UK).

Malik explained that the shared experience of practising and playing sport together provides a common ground to help bring youths closer to one another, even as their familial backgrounds straddled different political, social, religious, or cultural beliefs. “Geopolitical situations can manifest themselves on a localised level, that can at times become uncomfortable. Sport diplomacy creates a safe platform to voice concerns and understand one-another’s perspectives and encourage mutual understanding, compassion and empathy to cooperate and play the game together that they are there for.”

Athletes are well placed to use their platform to discuss issues around inequalities, such as gender, race and more, because their audience looks up to them and pays attention to what they say. Despite their at times herculean qualities on the field or on the court, sportspeople can be relatable for the average person as they don’t always win, suffer setbacks in their careers (whether as individuals or as teams), and have to overcome a variety of challenges in order to claim a championship title. Playing a sport or supporting a team is a lived experience that everyday citizens can relate to. However, more importantly, athletes come from all backgrounds, all parts of society and different parts of the country. Athletes bring that lived experience to the fore conveying a commendable and inspirational strength which serves as an authentic representation of a culture/nation.

For Hewitt, his work off of the rugby field led to him becoming a non-executive board member for the Commonwealth Games Wales. “Being open to conversing with people that have dissimilar viewpoints is a starting place to develop better understanding of sensitive issues”. However, his experience advocating for Black Lives Matter and anti-racism has come at a cost of harassment. Hewitt discussed the pressures elite athletes face and the need for development of available support to protect and safeguard those that do speak out.

The panel discussed how we can better support athletes and coaches who wish to tap into the sport diplomacy framework to promote equality. One solution is to have global standards of education about sport diplomacy, and how to empower and safeguard sportspeople who decide to use their platforms to work towards greater inclusion and equality.

Another part of the solution is to foster relationships with allies. Allies are crucial in supporting athletes of all levels in this work. They can help champion the work of sportspeople and amplify their stories. Equally important is the way that allies can help the sporting networks at all levels build communities that use the sport diplomacy framework to work towards greater equality for all. Events of the past two years have highlighted the need for and importance of community in societies of all stripes; this teamwork is a natural echo of what occurs on the pitch and is thus well-suited for the issues at hand.

In conclusion, sport diplomacy can be practised at all levels both individually and collectively by all within its network. Sport diplomacy’s influence to address inequality is through incrementally constructing multidimensional bridges. These bridges aim to reduce inequality through understanding and compassion. Sport diplomacy is undeniably a unique tool. Where a person is on an opposing team, has a dissimilar set of values, or comes from different culture, religion or background, sport diplomacy provides an opportunity to extend a hand of friendship to collaboratively break down barriers related to inequality.

Ms Aashika Doshi Dr Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff

Board Member Research Associate

SOAS, University of London

Blog posts represent the views of the author and not that of Sport&EU or its members

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