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Is Sports Diplomacy Worth It?

A chapter of my new book focuses on the history of people-to-people exchanges, or “Track II diplomacy” between the United States and so-called rogue-regimes. Over at Foreign Policy, and against the context of the Sochi Olympics, I examined the enthusiasm among diplomats that sporting diplomacy really breaks down barriers between peoples and regimes. Here, for example, is a recent video blog by a State Department official preaching the merits of sports diplomacy, a discussion full of platitudes but absent any evidence of how it fits the broader picture of American diplomacy, which should be to advance American interests and solidify American national security.

Proponents of sporting diplomacy often cite two examples: First, African-American track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens’s triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Proponents of sporting diplomacy suggest he disproved Hitler’s racial theories on Hitler’s own turf. But subsequent history certainly shows that the boost Hitler received from hosting the Olympics more than offset any embarrassment Hitler experienced at Owens’s gold medals. Owens did not delegitimize Nazism among Hitler’s German constituents.

Second is the Ping-Pong diplomacy that allegedly broke the ice between the United States and Communist China. Henry Kissinger makes clear in his memoir White House Years, however, that the Ping-Pong exhibition actually came after months of behind-the-scenes diplomacy. To credit the athletes for the diplomatic breakthrough puts the cart between the horse.

Rather than assume athletic competitions break down barriers, it is important to recognize that sometimes they confirm them. After the Iranian team defeated the United States in a 1998 World Cup match, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei crowed that “Tonight, again, the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat.” In Sochi, Russian authorities seem determined to ensure that the Olympics reinforce hostility toward the United States rather than any feelings of brotherhood.

So is all sporting diplomacy bad? Certainly not, although its outcomes do not justify the State Department’s considerable investment in it. Simply put, when it comes to rogue regimes and America’s adversaries, it is time to face the fact that there are no magic formulas.