Sunday, November 09, 2008

Sports: Diplomatic Tool or Spark for Conflict?

In a city where “east” and “west” still conjures up old wounds and feelings of separation, the Berlin Eisbären hockey team is forging new connections. The former East Berlin Stasi hockey team has won three national championships in the last four years. With its new stadium opening up practically on the old border separating the city, many fans view it as a sign of putting the years of separation behind them.

The story is an example of how sports can transcend long-lived divisions in and between societies. Sports diplomacy has been an interesting aspect of international relations dating all the way back to the first Olympics. The US and China engaged in historic games of table tennis in 1971, ushering in “ping pong diplomacy” between the communist and capitalist rivals. Moreover, India and Pakistan have carried out a tradition of “cricket diplomacy” for years, and have just announced that the 2009 games will still be played even in the face of security fears and continued tension between the two nations.

The connection between sports and diplomacy seems obvious after some consideration. In sports, people have to work together. Competition is encouraged, but within the rules and regulations of the game. And, at its best, both teams live up to an ideal of sportsmanship in which they play hard but respect their competitors.

But what about when the competition gets out of control? Most people have seen or heard reports of how drunk and angry soccer fans have caused mayhem after matches. And every few years comes the story of American sports fans- often college students- engaging in acts of violence and vandalism after a game, resulting in the use of riot police.

Usually these are isolated incidents, quickly controlled by local police. However, there have been cases of sports fanning the flames of conflict instead of mitigating differences. The “Football Wars” between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 are one such case. Rising tensions between the two states stemmed from a flow of immigrants from El Salvador into Honduras. As economic problems worsened, many Hondurans blamed the immigrants. The Honduran government finally kicked out the immigrants from El Salvador. As the two countries became entwined in an increasingly tense conflict, qualifying matches between the two nations began for the World Cup. After the matches, violence erupted from both sets of fans. Although the conflict between El Salvador and Honduras went much deeper than sports, the ultra-nationalist sentiments of the clashing fans gave the war its name.

More often than not, sports matches between adversarial nations have helped ease the tensions and provide an opportunity for good will and positive public diplomacy. Examples like the Football Wars are much less common than that of the experience between the US and China and India and Pakistan. But it does bring up interesting questions about the role that sports, media, and national identity and loyalty has in diplomacy and international relations. How important are these factors in looking at a nation’s national interest and security? Though an elite few in government are probably most important in making decisions in this arena, in democracies like the US public opinion also matters. Did the historic table tennis matches between the US and China have an affect on Americans that helped ease their fears about rapprochement with China? Do these programs really make a difference in the relationship between countries? The State Department seems to think so, since it began its Sports Diplomacy initiative. US athletes are meeting with sports enthusiasts in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Russia to forge closer ties. Although programs like these will certainly not hold the answers to solving the differences between nations, perhaps they can help mitigate some tensions, which should be in the interest of all nations involved.

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