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The Dartmouth
May 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Jindal: The Game Within a Game

Sports can break up diplomatic gridlock, boost globalization and alter the international standing of nations.

Imagine the following: You’re a spectator at the first Olympics in Ancient Greece in 776 B.C. The spectacle of events like running, wrestling and chariot racing is unlike anything ever seen before. However, there is more to the Olympics than a scintillating display of physical ability, mental fortitude and strength; it was conceived to foster a peaceful environment, preventing war between city-states. Sports have since evolved considerably, but one thing that has remained constant is their ability to accelerate the formulation of diplomatic ties, propel people and nations alike out of impoverishment and strengthen multilateral relations.

“Sports Diplomacy” has only grown since the years of the ancient Olympics, with both countries and international organizations such as the UN deploying it as a method of brokering peace. The most prominent instance of this is the “Ping Pong Diplomacy” of the U.S. in the 1970s, which helped normalize U.S.-China relations during the Cold War. 

This started when nine American table-tennis players were invited to China for a visit. This proved the only channel for diplomatic relations between two nations previously at odds due to stark ideological and political differences, with Nixon being the first U.S. President to visit China after 23 years in 1972. Relations improved considerably: Embargos were lifted, tensions waned and, crucially, both nations passed the 1979 Shanghai Communiqué, which formalized diplomatic relations and affirmed support for disarmament. 

Sporting events also have the propensity to prevent tensions from snowballing into violent conflict. In 1987, border tensions between India and Pakistan were increasing owing to military exercises being conducted near the Wagah Border. Political pressures also threatened to boil over as well, given the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In an attempt to prevent the issue from spiraling out of control, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi invited Pakistan’s Prime Minister Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq to a test match at Jaipur. This visit culminated in a dinner on the same day, which is rumored to have resulted in a successful negotiation for a reduction in border troops by both leaders, cooling a potentially dangerous flare-up in tensions. 

Beyond international diplomacy, sports have the potential to foster a shared collective identity. A notable example occurred in the 1990s, during the period when North and South Yemen existed as separate states. Football matches across borders played a crucial role in reinforcing the idea of a unified Yemen. Dubbed “football diplomacy,” this subsequently popularized the idea of a united Yemen in the eyes of the public (albeit for a few years). The humanitarian upside of sports is also noteworthy, especially in the context of non-state actors’ programs to bring aid and peace to war-torn areas. 

Sports can also culminate in the ascendance of nations, as they can be used as a measure to increase national attractiveness, facilitate national rebranding and thus bolster global reputation. This is because the apparent “heritage value” of sports, or the worth people bestow upon culture and traditions, is immensely high. 

Take the example of Qatar — a Middle -Eastern country smaller than Connecticut that wants to change its reputation as a Petrostate — the host of last year’s FIFA World Cup. As is the case with its neighbors, Qatar suffered from “Dutch Disease,” an economic phenomenon characterized by overreliance on a few limited revenue-streams, and therefore began investing in alternative means of economic growth. Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup thus offered a variety of compelling prospects for the country, such as the influx of 1.5 million tourists from 95 countries. Post-World Cup, Qatar has also started diversifying its supply chains away from Saudi Arabia and neighboring Gulf Countries and towards countries like Turkey and Germany instead. 

Interestingly, Nelson Mandela leveraged the power of sports, in particular rugby, to help unite South Africa at the twilight of the Apartheid era. In 1995, Mandela saw the Rugby World Cup hosted in South Africa as an opportunity to break down racial barriers, symbolically wearing a Springbok Jersey, traditionally associated with the white Afrikaner community, to send a powerful message about inclusivity. This sentiment was only amplified by the Springboks’ eventual World Cup victory. These events helped rehabilitate South Africa’s global image to show that it had begun to overcome its apartheid past. Many academics, including neoliberal visionary scholar Joseph Nye himself, believe sports have helped developing nations show an alternative and improved perception of themselves to the West.

The next time you switch on ESPN, remember that the game you’re watching could be part of the complex, multifaceted and fascinating game that is international relations and diplomacy. Sports unite and globalize fragmented nations, cultures and people. In the process, sports serve as an inspirational means to foster a more collaborative and inclusive international setup.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.