When you think of diplomats and foreign policy specialists, you probably envision people in suits and ties, carrying attache cases, clustered in meeting rooms with interpreters rapidly talking between them. But an integral part of the U.S. State Department's mission is carried out by envoys in shorts, T-shirts, and cross-trainers with nary a briefcase or file folder in site.
The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (BECA) in the State Department is home to Sports United, a program that sends American athletes on international cultural exchange missions. It also welcomes foreign athletes to the United States for sports clinics and exhibition games.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said, "Actually, our sport's exchanges are the most popular exchanges we do. And when I go to other countries around the world and we talk about what kind of exchanges that people are looking for, very often a leader will say, how about a sports exchange?"
And why not? Along with art and music, sports is one of those areas of human commonalities that require little interpretation.
Sports United describes the program as, "an international sports programming initiative designed to help start a dialogue at the grassroots level with non-elite young people. The programs aid youth in discovering how success in athletics can be translated into the development of life skills and achievement in the classroom."
What is Sports Diplomacy?
Sports diplomacy is simply using the common bond of sports to bridge ever-present gaps between nations and cultures. It introduces young athletes to each other without the economic, political, and military issues that burden traditional diplomacy.
The State Department adds that, "To succeed in sports requires practice, discipline and determination; important skills that help young people succeed in all areas of their lives."
Three Sports Diplomacy Arenas
Sports United divides its work into three areas of sports diplomacy. They are:
- Sports Visitors
American ambassadors nominate athletes and coaches from their host countries to travel to the United States for specialized training and clinics. They return home with the incentive to conduct clinics of their own.
- Sports Envoys
Sports United works with professional American sports organizations and the U.S. Olympic Committee to select athletes and coaches to become "sports envoys" or "ambassadors of sport." Their work is the reverse of sports visitors. Sports envoys travel around the globe, giving clinics in their sport, making presentations, and encouraging athletes. Often American sports teams play exhibition games with foreign national teams.
Sports envoys have included such athletes as Michelle Kwan, figure skating; Cal Ripken and Ken Griffey, Jr., baseball; George Gervin, Willie Green, and Jason Maxiell, basketball; Katie Smith, Ebony Hoffman, and Cynthia Cooper, Women's NBA; Amber Stackhouse and Erin Comstock, snowboarding; Briana Scurry, Michelle French, and Tony Sanneh, soccer; and Misty May-Treanor and Butch May, volleyball.
- Sports Grants
Sports organizations in eligible countries (a list of which changes yearly) can submit proposals for grant money through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Proposals must facilitate sport education and training for non-elite kids under seventeen years old.
Sports United and the BECA currently have two special initiatives, one with Russia, the other with China.
- US-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev recently agreed to improve relations between the two countries in a variety of areas. The commission's Working Group on Education, Culture, Sports, and Media seemed a logical fit for Sports United, which has arranged exchanges for athletes in volleyball, hockey, swimming, and basketball. When a group of Russian basketball players arrived in the United States, they even got to play some one-on-one with Obama himself, a well-known basketball enthusiast.
- US-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange
This initiative endeavors to do the same for U.S.-China relations as the previous initiative is doing for U.S.-Russian relations. The State Department says the program continues the tradition of the "ping-pong diplomacy" that began between the two countries when President Richard Nixon first visited China in 1972. "Since then, sports have continued to play an important role in bringing the people of our two countries together," said a State Department release.