Explainer: Understanding Sports Diplomacy

Sports represent one of the most impactful global activities that unite a divided world. By harnessing this universal passion, powerful globalization through sports continues to systemize a positive, unique path to transcend today’s differences.

As diplomacy evolves in the 21st century, we must embrace sports diplomacy as a tool for public and private sectors to engage in foreign policy priorities.

Defining Sports Diplomacy and its Actors:

A comprehensive foreign affairs approach utilizing sports to further national interests. 

Sports diplomacy involves diplomatic activities and representation conducted by individuals associated with sports institutions and the communities within which they engage. The universal nature of sports—transcending linguistic, national, and cultural boundaries—enables effective communication across diverse cultures globally. Sports diplomacy optimally utilizes this characteristic of sports to achieve various diplomatic objectives.

By working with athletes, officials, and competitions, sports diplomacy can enhance a country's diplomatic relations. Participants include states, government agencies, international/national sports associations, athletes, coaches, sports professionals, media, and fan movements. These efforts unite people, breaking down preconceived ideas and fostering people-to-people experiences that transcend borders, cultures, and national differences.

Objectives of Sports Diplomacy:

Using sport to bring people, nations, and communities closer together via a shared love of physical pursuits.

Disintegration, introspection, and the retreat of the nation-state from the globalization agenda have dominated the 21st century. In such an environment, scholars, students, and practitioners of international relations are beginning to reconsider how they can use sport to address climate change, gender inequality, and sustainable development goals.

Importance of Sports Diplomacy for Society:

Fully embracing sports and its participants unlocks a powerful tool for supporting foreign policy and diplomacy beyond quadrennial global events. Sports diplomacy strengthens engagement worldwide and allows athletes to forge connections between communities, fostering stronger relationships rooted in shared values. Sports diplomacy has the potential to inspire transformative change and enhance the quality of life across various arenas.

Athletes serving as diplomats on the global stage possess the ability to unite around international social issues. They become influential voices for change, advocating for inclusion, youth empowerment, health and wellness, conflict resolution, entrepreneurship, and more. Athletes contribute to increased cultural understanding through their actions, acting as catalysts for positive transformations.

Recognizing that sport can also serve as a vehicle for extremist ideologies and government propaganda is crucial. Those involved in international policy must actively monitor sports diplomacy to advance security, peace, and human rights and safeguard against potential misuse.

The Olympics:

The most salient example of sports diplomacy is the Olympic Games. The modern Olympic movement promotes peace, human dignity, and intercultural understanding. The games have inspired generations of athletes and spectators with Olympic values, and at times, these values have bled into foreign policies.

However, sports can convey messages of hate and violence as quickly as those of fellowship and peace. Sport has proven a valuable means of bolstering totalitarian or dictatorial regimes. Successful athletes and sporting events lend domestic and international legitimacy to these regimes, and athletic competitions often become proxy battlefields.


 A phenomenon in which a state or non-state actor uses sports to enhance the actor’s reputation.

Sports can engage people’s passions, generate attention, and bridge cultural and geographic divides, making it a powerful tool for policy promotion and societal change. Alternatively, sportswashing can also enhance the legitimacy of bad actors, shielding them from the consequences of misconduct and emboldening them to commit future wrongdoings.

Importance of Sports Diplomacy for Governments:

Sports diplomacy holds significance for governments as a strategic instrument in international relations. It functions as a mechanism for soft power, allowing nations to exhibit cultural values and prowess on a global stage, thereby enhancing their global influence. The platform of international sporting events facilitates cultural exchange and people-to-people connections, fostering mutual understanding and positive relations between nations.

Beyond its symbolic value, sports diplomacy presents tangible economic opportunities by hosting major sporting events, contributing to tourism, infrastructure development, and national prestige. Additionally, sports serve as a non-conventional avenue for diplomatic engagement, potentially mitigating political tensions and fostering dialogue between conflicting nations.

Sports diplomacy constitutes a nuanced and multifaceted approach for governments to cultivate international goodwill, bolster diplomatic ties, and extend their influence in the global arena.

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