The 2012 Summer Olympic Games open July 27 in London. The Olympics give nations a chance to showcase their best in ways other than politics, warfare, and global one-up-manship.
Of course, wherever humans go, some element of politics follows. Sports, especially Olympic-caliber sports, have frequently crossed into the foreign policy realm. I'll be writing more about that as the London Games approach.
But first, it's interesting to note that the U.S. State Department has its own division that borrows from the world of sports to promote cultural awareness and cooperation between nations. It's called Sports Diplomacy.
The State Department lists a variety of reasons for having the Sports Diplomacy program: discipline, teamwork, leadership, persistence, respect for rules and other participants. (Coincidentally, those are also the main attributes of good foreign policy practitioners.)
However, Sports Diplomacy also provides open conduits of communication between nations, even when their governments don't exactly see eye-to-eye. Who can forget the classic case of "ping-pong diplomacy" in 1971-72 that paved the way for Richard Nixon's visit to Communist China?
Major Sports Diplomacy Initiatives
The U.S. has two major sports diplomacy initiatives -- Sports United and U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission (BPE) and the U.S.-China Consultation on People-to-People (CPE). It also has a host of other sports venues and participants.
The U.S.-Russian BPE is the result of U.S. President Barack Obama's pledge to "reset" U.S. relations with Russia. Sports envoys in basketball, swimming, hockey, and volleyball have travelled between the two countries since the program began.
A highlight of the BPE came in 2010 when Obama -- a noted B-ball fan and amateur player -- shot hoops with a group of Russian sports exchange students. After rolling up his white shirtsleeves, Obama chatted with the kids and hit at least one three-pointer.
Basketball also plays a big part in the U.S.-China CPE, as do soccer and what the State Department calls "disability inclusive" sports.
Sports United Exchange Programs
Sports United and the State Department have coordinated a variety of exchange programs involving many different sports. Those include:
- Visitors from Bahrain and Qatar participating in a NASCAR motorsports exchange in North Carolina.
- Disability-inclusive sports, such as wheelchair basketball and volleyball, programs in China and South Africa.
- Olympic gold-medalist Evan Lysacek leading ice-skating clinics in Sweeden and Belarus.
- Snowboarders from Kyrgyzstan and hockey players from Russia visiting the U.S.
- Kenyan and Nigerian track-and-field athletes participating in track meets with American high schoolers, and working with U.S. special Olympians.
- Women's National Basketball Association players Tamika Raymond and Kesha Brown holding girls' basketball clinics in China.
American Public Diplomacy Envoys
The U.S. has also enlisted many professional athletes as American Public Diplomacy envoys. They, and some of the places they have visited, are:
- Michelle Kwan, figure skater, Singapore, South Korea, and Ukraine.
- Cal Ripken, Jr., baseball Hall-of-Famer, Japan and Nicaragua.
- Ken Griffey, Jr., All-Star baseball player, Philippines.
The State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs accepts yearly proposals from non-profit organizations to structure sports diplomacy programs that fite certain criteria. All proposals must reach out to "non-elite" kids between 7 and 17 years old, as well as their coaches.
This year, the BECA is looking for proposals that stress youth sports engagement, sport and health, sport and disability, and sport for social change. You can see more information at the state department website.