The socio-political soft-power role of elite athletes through sport diplomacy
Updated: Oct 21, 2022
Sport and diplomacy share a longstanding connection in global affairs, however the edges are not yet marked (Rofe, 2016). The two fields have a co-constitutive ability to change one another’s character rather than nature when combined (Ibid). Athletes are often seen as global citizens who can highlight issues that might otherwise be overlooked with the potential to catalyse them through advocacy and public support.
Young athletes encounter challenges that unfortunately are not unique to them, such as discrimination on and off the field. Such experiences impact and generate additional challenges for athletes when they play the game, as well as impacting them and those associated with them off the field. Developing an understanding of how to constructively respond takes time and space which are often not available to young adult athletes. There is a responsibility on those around athletes to nurture them and help them build their confidence to informedly decide if and how they use their platform, should they want to. Just as athletes are held to account for their words, stakeholders around them should be held to the same if not higher standard to effectively create a safe space and supportive network, and to implement mechanisms to protect the athletes and all they represent.
Despite achievements, professional athletes are often told to stick to playing their sport when they choose to voice opinions. The essence of the issues appears to be a lack of understanding around discriminatory behavior, and the fact that some audiences question whether athletes are qualified or entitled to discuss topics away from the sport they play. In turn, at times distinguishing the global citizen and on-the-field athlete from the person off-the-field is challenging for some audiences. The sporting career of professional athletes and their success should not be taken to mean that they have been exempted from life experiences that shaped their perspectives and values. Such audiences appear to discount the humanity of the athlete’s identity off the field and therefore attempt to disregard the experiences off the field that moulded their perceptions.
Athletes’ communication is effective because their audiences can relate to what they represent, whether it is race, gender, background, and similar shared experiences. Athletes too are ordinary citizens, meaning they have the same values and face similar challenges to their audiences. On and off the field, these relatable experiences and emotions combined with values that an athlete is seen to embody and represent, create trust and credibility directly with audiences. Athletes have spectators at all levels, meaning their accessibility can reach audiences that would ordinarily be difficult to get to that have influential political or change-making powers.
Marcus Rashford is a very current example of this. Rashford used his sporting platform to engage in dialogue with those in positions of power to implement policy for social change. Unquestioningly, he had a significant impact and influence over the UK’s Prime Minister decision not to cut funding for free school meals for children in the UK. This example further demonstrates the influence and soft power that professional athletes can have. Hence, athletes who individually choose to use their platforms to address challenging social issues, can infiltrate spaces that are delicate by nature. Consequently, turning an ordinary athlete into a diplomat in a tracksuit, where they can express their sentiments and create dialogue on a global stage for all those they represent to strengthen and inspire the pursuit of positive socio-political and economic change.
It is apparent that there is a pivotal responsibility to properly educate audiences to instill positive change. Without a foundational understanding, it becomes difficult to effectively communicate positive messages and create space for influence at decision-making levels within the sporting industry. Athletes have the ability to align their organisations and fans with their communities, which includes the care and understanding of the issues that exist within them. This gives them the opportunity to influence institutions that can change the ways in which members of those communities are treated, but which may not have the route to access those places where change can be initiated.
In addition to competing, there is a responsibility to equip athletes to help them process and manage being on the receiving end of any sort of abuse around who and what they represent, ranging both on and off the field. Athletes have platforms unique to them where their words as individuals can have an impact that is seen tangibly through positive change. In conclusion, sport diplomacy creates an interdisciplinary platform for athletes to become diplomats in tracksuits. The soft power possessed by elite athletes is unparalleled and puts them in a unique position to use their influence to accelerate change on multidimensional levels.
Ashton Hewitt, Elite Athlete (Professional Rugby Player)
Aashika Doshi, Sport&EU Board Member