Friday, December 2, 2011

Public Diplomacy and Basketball

I always tend to think of public diplomacy in relation to sports, and not just because it is the field in which I am currently employed and that I literally just got back from an NCAA volleyball game.

We tend to send athletes as ambassadors, a friendly game of hoops between a couple college teams and the Chinese national team for example. Although, they don't always expect the games to look like it did this summer when the brawl occurred between Georgetown and Chinese players. That is not exactly the message of peace and friendship that really was expected out of this goodwill tour.

Sports normally are a great way to spread public diplomacy, who doesn't enjoy watching international games or exhibitions and seeing some pretty amazing talent. And, it's way more interesting than watching a meeting take place and the canned political statements.

But, as with the Georgetown-China basketball game, things can go wrong. It's hard to say why the players felt like they needed to start swinging at each other (especially when they knew they were on a goodwill tour and this is highly anti-goodwill), but it definitely wasn't planned. Public diplomacy can also run into hiccups, whether it's comments that are not culturally correct (Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" example) or if there are highly controversial statements made that could rub either of the publics the wrong way, it's not a bulletproof thing. There is always the chance of it back-firing, though more with actual public diplomacy than basketball diplomacy we definitely hope not.


  1. Public Diplomacy gone awry in sports is something I think we see a lot of especially during world sporting events like the Olympics and World Cup. While friendly rivalry can facilitate discussion and encourage discourse between citizens who may not normally do so. When a friendly game sparks controversy it can have an unintentionally negative consequence.

    For instance, do you recall the pairs figure skating judging controversy during the 2002 Winter Olympics, which revealed a coalition between judges from Russia, France, Ukraine, and Poland to award mutual favorable marks. Ultimately it ended with the French judge admitting to the rigged marks which lead to a joint gold medal being awarded to two different pairs teams.

    You might also recall allegations that members of the Olympic gold medal-winning Chinese women's gymnastics team was composed of members too young to compete (based on IOC regulations). These allegations never materialized into action, but the team denied allegations of producing false credentials for the girls in question.

    I guess like any positive measure, good things can backfire and yield unintentionally negative consequences.

  2. I watched this video when it first happened and I was so angry!! I can remember thinking how stupid it was for a host institution-especially of a good will, diplomatic event- could allow for such hostilities to break out. It seemed like not only an affront to the game of basketball but a slap in the face. As Jeff said though, sometimes sporting events lead to unintended, all out brawls. I can remember how mad French people were during the 2006 world cup after Zidane head butted that Italian guy... but they were mad that the Italian player had insulted Zidane's sister- not that the violent reaction got their star player thrown out, essentially costing them the game.

    We don't even have to look that far to find other instances of sports related violence- at least once a year you hear of fans being jumped while attending sporting events in rival cities- and thats in the US!

    I do think public diplomacy is an awesome venue for creating ties between peoples instead of governments... but I think sporting events should be handled extremely cautiously- otherwise the unintended consequences could do way more harm than good.

  3. I think it's fascinating that something that is by nature a competition is used for goodwill. What a lovely and unexpected consequence. I don't think sport was necessarily invented for this purpose, but its use as a PD tool - at the same time as it's used for pulling the members of a nation together/building nationalistic sentiment - is pretty inventive.

    Also, can you clear up what was culturally incorrect about "ich bin ein Berliner"? I've read the jelly donut theory is incorrect so I wasn't sure if there was something else I was unaware of? I'm guessing you know more about German culture than I do, and I'm interested to know...