Full Frame: Sports Diplomacy

Full Frame

In April 1971, the American table tennis team, which was competing in the world championship in Japan, was invited to China. Later known as “ping pong diplomacy”, the visit laid the groundwork for official diplomatic communications that would reopen the U.S.-China relationship.

Sports can serve as a universal language and has been used throughout history as a tool for international relations and diplomacy.

Sports diplomacy started with the very first Olympics in 776 B.C.

“The kings got together and said, during the Games, we’re going to put weapons down and allow athletes to travel safely to Olympia, where the Games were first held. So that was the first really sports diplomacy on record,” said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, the director of the MS in Sport Management Program at George Washington University.

Delpy Neirotti, who has attended 20 Olympics Games, said the International Olympic Committee has played a role in sports diplomacy by distributing funds to countries around the world to develop sports.

“Because back in the ‘80s, there were a handful of countries that won medals. Now, if you look at it, there’s more and more distribution of medal winners across the world,” Delpy Neirotti said. “And that is what the Olympic spirit is about. It’s letting more people compete, more people win.”

At the center of sports diplomacy are star athletes who have, at times, played the role of ambassadors. In particular, the National Basketball Association has worked hard to have a strong presence in China and the rest of the world, said Jimmy Lynn, an adjunct professor in Georgetown University’s sports industry management program.

“Shaq was a big deal. Obviously, Michael Jordan was a big deal. But that first year Yao Ming came, you would not believe the media,” Lynn said. “The popularity of the NBA in China exploded because of Yao Ming.”

Soccer is another sport that’s attracted a global following, Lynn said.

“You really see the expansion of the sport. It’s a really big European sport, [then] came to the U.S.. It’s trending very well now in the U.S., but the explosion is taking place in Asia,” he said.

It’s every athlete’s dream to win a gold medal at the Olympics, but some believe that in order to do so you have to start training very early. We visit a figure skating academy run by Olympian Chen Lu and a youth ice hockey school in Beijing.