Man at His Best

Opinion: Can Sports Mend Strained Political Relationship Between Countries?

Diplomacy through soft power.

BY Editors | Feb 14, 2017 | Culture


A 144-page report by the respected Canadian law professor Richard McLaren on behalf of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) found that the Russian government and sports authorities colluded to ensure Russia’s athletes could take banned performance-enhancing drugs and evade doping tests at the London 2012 Olympics. It also found more than 1,000 Russians athletes across more than 30 sports were involved in or benefitted from state-sponsored doping between 2011 and 2015.

For sports enthusiasts, the scandal shows just how badly the rot has set in, while to the wider public, it serves as a reminder of how sports can affect more than just those in the sporting arena. These developments have not painted Russia as a responsible member of the global community. After all, the sporting battlefield can, sometimes, hold as much significance for nations as military or economic ones.

Sporting superpowers like China, the US and, yes, Russia have derived benefits from dominating world sports, including enhancing international prestige, and boosting national morale and pride. This also plays a significant role in international relations and diplomacy.

One key example has been China’s re-emergence and acceptance back into the international community since the early ‘70s. Take the so-called “ping-pong diplomacy” where matches between Chinese and US players paved the way for the restoration of China’s seat on the UN Security Council and the normalisation of Sino-US diplomatic relations. Since then, China has developed sporting prowess to match its economic rise, including hosting the 2008 Olympics.

Enhanced by globalisation and driven by increasingly visible nonstate actors such as FIFA, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and sporting legends like Michael Phelps, David Beckham and Roger Federer, sports matters today and governments are keen to tap into this avenue of soft power.

Speaking with one of the most senior sports figures in Singapore, the exchange confirmed to me the impact sports could have on soft-power diplomacy, as well as bilateral and people-to-people relations.

He was of the view that having Singaporeans in senior positions in international sporting federations and decision-making roles in global bodies like the IOC had a positive impact on how the nation is perceived abroad. This, he said, could open doors and alternative channels when traditional diplomatic ties are stymied by the vagaries of international relations.

The challenge lies in finding enough capable and qualified individuals willing to take on such roles, especially since many of them are voluntary and don’t come with a pay check.

Golf legend Arnold Palmer had this to say in his book, A Life Well Played: “Wouldn’t it be just wonderful if we had a sport that was a more prominent means of solving problems around the world? What if golf could be something that brought us together? It might even be that sport could be the focus of political situations, and that it could help solve disagreements, that it could replace war and strife on the front pages of newspapers.”

While he dismissed this notion as “fanciful”, I don’t think it is wishful thinking at all, but should be something all of us in sports can and should work towards.

From Esquire Singapore's February 2017 issue