Guest Post: Can Sport Really Change The World? (Part I)

Here is the latest guest post from my Master’s of Public Diplomacy peers — this time from Kelsey Suemnicht, whose in-depth analysis needed to be split in two for your reading pleasure!

The Olympics is an event that makes international relations feel easy and fun. Considering the Olympic Games as an example of a large-scale public diplomacy campaign, I highlight five themes that support its efforts as a catalyst in cross-cultural relations: individual empowerment, regionalism, art, food, and transaction. In the realm of diplomacy, the Olympic dream represents the hope that sport is truly capable of changing the world; the direct influence upon, engagement of, and interaction between fans surrounding the competitions is evidence that it can.

The Olympic rings lit up on the Tower Bridge

The Olympic rings lit up on the Tower Bridge (via Mirror UK)

As David Mandel explained in his post, “Pride and Prejudice 2012,” hosting an Olympic games signifies a proud moment for any city, region, country, population. The strength of any Games comes from the support of the local community and the experiences of attendees within those communities, which I feel is rarely captured on television. It is the experiences in forums on site that exemplify basic public diplomacy and where the cross-cultural relations that support the spirit of the Games most often occur.

My Olympic experience took place in two locations that are significant to my own narrative. My cousins’ hometown of Park City was headquarters for all ski and snowboard events for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. It was an influential experience to act as the host country and to watch the best atheletes in the world ski the same runs on which I had learned how to crash and fly as a child. The 2006 Torino games coincided with my junior year of college when I chose to study political science and the Italian language abroad in Bologna and Rome. The opportunity to view the Olympics through the eyes of a new culture was a fundamental experience in my pursuit of public diplomacy as a career.

When we tune in to the Olympics on television, we’re privvy to exclusive interviews, sweeping photography of the host city, and the back-to-back coverage of fast-paced competitions. But the constantly-promoted “Olympic Spirit” can be accessed at its crux in the midst of the Games as an attendee. What happens off-camera, on your way to the stadium, as one leaves an arena, and in the outer-lying towns? The essence of public diplomacy.

Jesse Owens, 1935

Jesse Owens, 1935

Individual Empowerment / Citizen Diplomacy

Individual empowerment is a cornerstone of the Olympic Charter: ”The role of the International Olympic Committee is to act against any form of discrimination,…[implement] equality between women and men,…and to provide for the social and professional futures of athletes.” The Olympics provides citizens an opportunity to participate as diplomatic actors on behalf of their home countries. The most visible example of this theme is celebrity diplomats. A legendary athlete can change a sport simply by being themselves, exhibited by the examples of Jesse OwensBonnie Blair, and Wayne Gretzky. A famous athlete can also influence the image of their home country as do Usain BoltMario Balotelli, or Michelle Kwan.

My Mom and I experienced a more-nuanced form of citizen diplomacy at the first Ski Jumping competition in Park City, Utah. As citizens of the host country for the 2002 Games, we decided to take it upon ourselves to cheer for any international athletes that didn’t seem to have a fan base. Our favorite immediately became the least supported athlete, a Ski-Jumper from Kazakhstan. We yelled our hearts out to cheer him on, not wanting him to feel homesick or unsupported. I will always harbor good feelings for people from Kazakhstan because I recall the bravery that athlete embraced, to show up to compete even though Ski Jumping was a lesser-known sport and his family could not afford to accompany him. This was an athlete that would not be featured on television and would probably not even place within the top ten. His courage reminded me that sport transcends national identities and recalls the common bonds we share as humans.

In Turin, my Dad and I found ourselves with tickets to a Curling match. We had no idea how to cheer for the sport but we decided to attend in an effort to uphold the Olympic Spirit. I still do not know the rules of Curling but we departed with a wonderful notion of how to tell Nordic vs. Scandinavian flags from each other, given to us by acquaintances made in the stands. By the end of the event, we also had the Swedish national anthem, “Du gamla, Du fria”, memorized thanks to our new friends, seven of Sweden’s most passionate Curling fans. For fans of the Olympics, sometimes the Games don’t matter as much as the lasting friendships made and the new knowledge gained.

Flag Country Governance Capital Population
Official Scandinavian countries
demark flag Denmark Kingdom Copenhagen 5,519,287
norway flag Norway Independence 1905 Oslo 4,836,183
sweden flag Sweden Kingdom Stockholm 9,336,487
The additional Nordic nations
finland flag Finland Independence 1917 Helsinki 5,349,829
iceland flag Iceland Independence 1944* Reykjavík 319,756
Nordic autonomous regions
faroe islands flags Faroe Islands Self-governance 1948 Tórshavn 49,006
greenland flag Greenland Self-governance 1979 Nuuk 57,600
åland flag Åland Islands Autonomous province 1920* Mariehamn 27,456

(via Lost in Stockholm)

Regionalism

The Olympics is an event that inspires many individuals to unite in a common quest for excellence in sportmanship and teamwork. One fascinating concept I experienced as a fan and attendee of two games is the emergence of regional identities. The IOC seeks to upholds this element in its mission “to cooperate…in the endeavour to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace.”

via BBC

I will never forget the friendly Canadian I asked for directions in Turin who, when I thanked him, he replied, “always happy to help a fellow North American!” When I would meet a fan from Mexico, I would exclaim, “oh! I’m from California,” because it felt as if I was meeting a long-lost cousin. When you’re across the world from home, at a global event, it’s not uncommon to strike up bonds with your neighbors that you wouldn’t have previously considered in a different context.  As American University Professor Robert Pastor promotes in his book The North American Idea, “transnational problems cannot be solved unilaterally… The opening of each country to each other and the world represents an enhancement of rights not their restriction. Sometimes sovereignty can be defended better by eliminating barriers and not raising them, by working closely with each other not by distancing ourselves” (6-14).

The opportunity that the Olympics presents for regionalism to influence global affairs, and for public diplomacy to promote it should not be taken lightly.

Read Part II of Kelsey’s piece here.
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