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Sport Diplomacy

by on March 21, 2012

Sport diplomacy falls under the category of public diplomacy and for example Professor Stuart Murray defines it as follows:

It involves representative and diplomatic activities undertaken by sports people on behalf of and in conjunction with their governments. The practice is facilitated by traditional diplomacy and uses sports people and sporting events to engage, inform and create a favourable image among foreign publics and organisations, to shape their perceptions in a way that is (more) conducive to the sending government’s foreign policy goals (Murray: 8).

Ping-Pong Diplomacy (China and USA)


The classic (and maybe the most well-known) example of sport diplomacy in use is the Ping-Pong diplomacy between China and the USA in 1971. After the World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, the American team was invited to visit China. This was above all, a gesture of changed attitudes aimed at the publics in both countries and eventually led to the official visit to China by Richard Nixon (Chehabi, 2001:100-1). Although, the Sino-American relations were dramatically improved by these events, the actual use of table tennis only worked as the “’soft’ way of exploring or signalling a foreign policy shift between estranged states” (Chehabi, 2001:100, Murray: 11).

There is an entire book on this topic by Itoh, Mayumi “The Origin of Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Forgotten Architect of Sino-U.S. Rapprochement” from 2011.

Wrestling and Football Diplomacy (USA and Iran)

Following two decades of no diplomatic relations between USA and Iran, in 1997 the newly elected president Mohammed Khatami “advocated people-to-people contacts between the two nations to break the ice” (Chehabi, 2001:89). According to H. E. Chehabi, sport diplomacy between the two countries rose around two sports: freestyle wrestling and football, since with wrestling both countries were world class and with football, neither was particularly successful (Ibid. 96). This was important since, it protected both countries from great defeats that might hurt national pride and become humiliating (Ibid.).

Chehabi’s article discussed both sports with detail.

Cricket Diplomacy (India and Pakistan)


According to Stuart Croft “cricket has been an important element in the process of improving relations between India and Pakistan” (Croft, 2005: 1039). In 2005, the President of Pakistan and the Prime Minister of India were able to use a game of cricket as a platform for informal discussions, but following the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008, it was only in 2011 that cricket diplomacy could continue. Leaders from the two countries attended the Cricket World Cup semi-final match and “the occasion was an attempt to use sport to create a feel-good atmosphere between the two countries” (Murray: 12 and Croft, 2005: 1039)

Further articles on this topic:


However, there are also critics to sport diplomacy arguing that to begin with sports and diplomacy should not be mixed. First, because sport should not be corrupted with politics, second, because sport itself can create friction and the violence around sport events can even send an “anti-diplomatic message” (Murray: 15-6, 20).

Georgetown basketball exhibition in China ends in brawl,

Despite the criticism, Murray believes that the future looks bright for sport diplomacy, but it is vital to understand that “while traditional diplomacy is the means to a state’s foreign policy end, sports-diplomacy is the means to the means of those ends” (Murray: 8-9). Similarly Chehabi concludes that: “sports contacts cannot, in and of themselves, lead to better relations” and that: “it was not Chinese and American Ping-Pong players… but the two sides’ leaders’ decision to improve relations” (Chehabi, 2001: 103).



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  1. thebricsarecoming permalink

    Great blog, i think i agree with the critics on this one, politics should not enter sport it will only corrupt it.

  2. I also agree that politics should not enter sport , howeverer, i think it has already happened. For example, today the right to host Olympic Games is seen primarily as a matter of state’s prestige by the majority of countries. Also, let’s remember 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow , when 65 countries , including USA and West Germany boycotted it because of political reasons… And 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles which was boycotted by 16 countries including the Soviet Union and East Germany…
    Returning to the blog , I absolutely agree that ‘it was not Chinese and American Ping-Pong players… but the two sides’ leaders’ decision to improve relations”. In this case , there had been a political will from both the parties to renew the diplomatic relations and ping -pong diplomacy was a perfect opportunity for both the states to declare that desire officially.
    I also agree that because sport is competetive in its nature, it can even provoke violence .

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