What is sports diplomacy?

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does … Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”

– Nelson Mandela, Former President of South Africa

“The reason behind … growth in [the] practice of sports diplomacy is simple: sport, like music or art, is a universal language that transcends division.”

– Dr. Stuart Murray, Sports Diplomacy Expert

“There is nothing like sport to open doors.”

– Professor Grant Jarvie, Chair of Sport at the University of Edinburgh

Sports Diplomacy is a new term that describes an old practice: the strategic use of sport to bring people, nations, and institutions closer together via a shared love of physical pursuits. State and non-state actors, as well as sportspeople, use Sports Diplomacy to build relationships, amplify social, political, and economic messages, and advance strategic policy or business objectives. Sports Diplomacy complements traditional diplomacy strategy, raises cultural awareness between states and strengthens international relations on and off the field of play.

The practice of using sport to improve relationships between humans dates back tens of thousands of years. The First Australians used sport as a form of conflict resolution, as did the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and the Romans. We still use Sports Diplomacy today to try to solve the world’s problems, however, the modern process involves strategy, commerce, best practice, academic research and — most importantly — results.

Quick ways to understand Sports Diplomacy

  1. Until recently, governments were the only ‘actor’ to use sport as a diplomatic tool. Nowadays, everyone is using it.
  2. Athlete activism will only go so far. For a sportsperson to truly change the world they must think in terms of diplomacy, agency, and policy.
  3. Sport and politics are very different from Sports Diplomacy (politics is domestic, has few rules, and is practised by politicians. Diplomacy is international, has lots of rules, and is practised by diplomats). 
  4. Sports Diplomacy complements existing Sport for Development, Sport for Good and Sport for Peace activities.
  5. Sports Diplomacy is a positive attempt to merge two ancient institutions to make the world a more peaceful, connected and sportier place
  6. All states use Sports Diplomacy to change or improve their international image.
  7. Sporting events are a great forum for diplomacy, business and peace.

The benefits of Sports Diplomacy

Governments, businesses, sportspeople, and other organisations are attracted to sport as a diplomatic tool for several reasons:

  • Sports Diplomacy drives economies and trade, creating new knowledge, programs, skills, and jobs.
  • From conflict resolution to strategic communication to cultural awareness, bespoke Sports Diplomacy projects target specific outcomes.
  • Sports Diplomacy changes perceptions of a country, region or city, abroad, while amplifying an area’s official culture and values.
  • Physical activities create new relationships, link diaspora communities, and form global networks. Connections built through sport endure for life
  • Commercial Sports Diplomacy strategies drive deals, open doors to new markets, establish links to international trading partners, unlock economic opportunity, and promote a nation as a destination of choice for trade, education or tourism, as examples.
  • Sports Diplomacy creates sustainable partnerships between government, sports clubs and national organisations while generating win-win outcomes.
  • Many sportspeople already act as ‘diplomats in tracksuits’. They represent their country and its values on the field of play, so it makes sense for them to continue acting as ambassadors away from sporting competition, building trust between peoples and organisations and laying the foundations for future diplomatic and business relations.

The Sports Diplomacy Alliance

The Sports Diplomacy Alliance was formed by a team of sports-fanatics and experts in the worlds of international sport, politics, research and business. By providing access, strategic advice, and world-class education, the Sports Diplomacy Alliance partners with progressive institutions to design and deliver high-profile Sports Diplomacy projects all over the world.

Learn more about what we do at the Sports Diplomacy Alliance or reach out to the team to see how we can support your organisation.