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Sport and Cultural Diplomacy

by on March 20, 2012

Public cultural diplomacy is about enhancing an image of the state and improving relations with other states through influencing opinions of foreign audiences. If cultural diplomacy is based on exchanging cultural values, sport may play an important  role in this process.

The main strength of  sport lies in its  worldwide audience. For example, Olympic games and football World Cup are the most watched TV programmes in the world.The Olympic Games  is an exceptional event which provides the state an opportunity to ”sell” its own image- its culture , history ,etc. to the billions of people around the globe. However , hosting the Olympic Games alone is not enough to ensure the success of  state’s public cultural diplomacy. If the words are not backed by the actions and a huge gap between the created image and the reality of the state exists, PCD cannot be successful in a long- term perspective.

The best example is 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Chinese put many efforts and used huge financial resources to organise the most expensive and, probably, the most impressive Olympic Games so far . The world audiences were amazed and fascinated. The world got the Chinese message : China became the great world power  which enjoyed rapid economic growth and development .

Now ,when euphoria of the Games has gone , the importance of the Games to China’s image can be evaluated in a different light .So  how has China ,actually, benefited from the Olympics in terms of  its PCD? The state showed the world its economic strength and increasing political power, however,  everyone had known this fact even before the Games. Recent polls have showed that people in Europe and USA generally have negative views towards China. Moreover,   people in Europe are not attracted by  China’s political values , nor by its culture and are only concerned with economic threats such as losing industries and jobs.(D’Hooghe,2010,27). The democracy , rule of law , freedom of the speech are fundamental values in Western societies and China’s continuing disrespect to these values contributes to ineffectiveness of  its PCD.

Another  claim  why sport can be an effective tool of cultural diplomacy is its universal attractiveness. C.Walters points out:

Only certain cultures or segments of society show strong interest in speaking English, traveling to the United States, attending a classical music event, or participating in a discussion on human rights. On the other hand, virtually all cultures and all citizens have an interest in and appreciation for sport.”


Therefore sport has   the power to bring different groups together, beyond their cultural boundaries.  The “ ping pong diplomacy “  can serve as an evidence as with the entrance of the first group of Americans into China for a series of ping pong matches in 1971 ,lines of communication were opened between the two countries. On the other hand, during a series of World Cup qualifying matches in 1970 between  El Salvador and Honduras, sport acted as the catalyst in what came to be known as the “Football War”- characterized by widespread violence, riots and exhibitions of extreme nationalistic sentiments. (Livingstone,2011)

More recently, the international football association (FIFA) , which is extremely powerful non- state actor with lack of transparency and accountability , has made a controversial decision to allow Russia and Qatar  to host World Cup finals in 2018 and 2022 respectively. The decision caused a huge anger among other nations and raised the suspicions that the two undemocratic states secretly bought the rights to host the events. Sir David Richards, vice- chairman of the English FA even accused the FIFA of stealing football from Britain and also criticized the Qatar for forbidding alcohol sale:

 “In our country and in Germany we have a culture. We call it “we would like to go for a pint and that pint is a pint of beer”. It is our culture as much as your culture is not drinking. There has to be a happy medium.”


Thus sport has the power to provoke political tensions and cultural clashes between different groups of people .

Also, sport does have the power to unify people. Some sports teams and personalities have become globally recognized and appreciated “brands”. For example, David Beckham is seen as an icon of football and fashion  in every continent. Many people around the world may not know who Mr. David Cameron is but they would definitely recognize David Beckham . The official website of Manchester United football club declares that the club has 81 million supporters in Asia. ( When Manchester United won the Champions League final in 2008 people from different cultures and backgrounds( Indians, East Europeans, Brazilians, English) were celebrating together in London streets and pubs. Neither D.Beckham nor Manchester United represent the United Kingdom directly, as former is a private person and the latter is the private football club, representing the city of Manchester, however the world knows that these “ brands” are British. In  this respect , the image of the UK as a state is enhanced without  any state’s interference.

Concluding Remarks

  • Sport has a potential to be a highly effective tool of public cultural diplomacy.
  • Global sports events such as football World Cups  and Olympic Games provides unlimited opportunities for host states to enhance their image. But that image can survive only if it is supported by real state’s policies .
  • Sport can have both unifying and dividing effects on different cultural and ethnic groups. Sport is much more effective tool of PCD when it remains neutral and does not involve politics.



  • Livingston,Kristen, “The Power of Sport: Should Sport and diplomacy Mix?”, 2011, viewed on :19/03/2012,            diplomacy-mix


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  1. mimi001 permalink

    I found your entry very interesting and noticed that you have considered many of the same questions as I have regarding the effectiveness of sport diplomacy. I was also rather fond of the quote from Walters about the universal nature of sports. I think it’s convincing that sports are universally enjoyed and for most sports one doesn’t need a shared language or fancy equipment..

    However, I have been wondering wether many of the events, such as football World Cup or the Olympic games can have a lasting effect since at least I cannot remember many of the past games or their locations. I assume people who went to these countries and had a good experience will carry the diplomatic message forward with them, but do other people remember the games or their diplomatic message since there is a new event in a few years in another location.

    Also, since sports are generally about competition, I am not fully convinced that they can certainly build lasting diplomatic bridges between cultures or peoples..

    • I agree with you that football World Cup or the Olympic Games may not have a lasting effect. As I wrote in my blog , the message can only have a lasting effect if it is backed by real actions and real policies. However, I think the role of the Olympic Games should not be underestimated . Olympic Games creates “momentum” when the host country can send its message, and because the rest of the world is excited and fascinated it is more likely to receive that message. A good example is 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona , which was essential to Spain’s nation branding . Basicly , the image of today’s Spain- a modern country , a perfect destination for tourists with the city of Barcelona – one of the most amazing cities in the world- was created during the Games…

  2. thebricsarecoming permalink

    I liked the idea of the ‘football war’ between El Salvador and Honduras as being borne from ‘extreme nationalistic sentiments’ could this description/lable be given to the US with it’s foreign policies and the way it wields its influence in the IFI’s (International Financial Institutions) and other such international organisations do you think?

    I whole heartedly agree with your last concluding point.

    Mimi001 i see you are not fully convinced sport can build a long lasting diplomatic bridges between cultures or people, i have to say i am not fully convinced that it can not. Consider Nelson Mandela’s success in uniting South Africa with Rugby, see here:
    and here:

    However i do agree with your point regarding the lasting impact the World Cup and Olympic games actually have for hosting nations and whether their PD message was ever truly received.

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