Friday, April 14, 2017

Sports diplomacy issues (3): on the side of classics

Sports diplomacy issues (3): on the side of classics

Dr. Gilles Klein, 14 April 2017


For the sportsmen of my generation, Dick Fosbury remains the person who seduced viewers of the Mexico Olympic games, with his reinvention of the high jump. For many, Mao Zedong and Nixon remain those who, three years later, reinvented diplomacy through sport. Let us say, reinvent only. Indeed, as we have seen before, the Greeks used physical activity to strengthen the connections between the communities of the Pan-Hellenic world. To get to Olympia, the delegations crossed areas at war, benefiting from a negotiated truce. However, nowadays, the idea that sport can be a tool of foreign policy only truly takes shape with so called tennis table diplomacy.


In 1971, visiting Japan, the American team attends the table tennis World championships. The delegation is invited by their Chinese counterparts to visit China. In that country, sport is already considered as an integral part of diplomacy according to the following maxim: “friendship first, competition after”. Six days after this invitation and for the first time since 1949, the American team, joined by journalists, dropped their sports bags and rackets on Chinese ground. Before, the meeting had been approved and facilitated by the national Committee of relations between United States – China.


Between friendship and competition, the story is nice, because once more everything starts on the field. Policy and diplomacy are sometimes only simple posterior formalizations of human adventures. This allows us to understand several strategies of sports diplomacy, which we will call classics and moderns. But let us start with the story of the two Zedong's who have mattered in the link between China and the United States of America. Discover the sportsman? Discover the diplomat?

Zedong 1

According to the members of the American delegation, everything starts through a simple gesture of solidarity between two athletes, the triple world Chinese champion Zhuang Zedong and the American player Glenn Cowan. The American who was running late during a training session missed his delegation's bus. The Chinese suggested he take the bus of the Chinese team. As a courtesy, he wants to break the ice. What to say? He who was educated to resist imperialism. What to do? He who was trained to advocate the values of the cultural revolution.

Zedong 2

One year before, in 1970, Zedong heard his namesake Mao Zedong, founder and leader of the People’s Republic of China, say to an American journalist and writer that China had big expectations of the American people. The Great Helmsman met, in fact, Edgar Snow on the Tiananmen Square, on the national day in 1970. Snow was the first occidental journalist to speak with the Chinese leader. His history of Chinese communism since 1930 had brought together the leaders of the Middle Kingdom. With the Black Panthers, the Afro-American supremacist movement, he was one of the rare American citizens to be recognized as a diplomat, ambassador of his country.


The gesture of sports solidarity then becomes a diplomatic gesture. He gives to Cowan the most prized thing in his sports bag: a silk stole. As for him, Cowan has nothing to give but his comb. Too anonymous a gift to be given in exchange. Later, he will also offer a gift with a diplomatic value: a t-shirt with red, white and blue colors, symbolizing peace. The relationship between the two sportsmen is in the news. Interviewed by a journalist, the American declares a strong desire to visit China. The diplomatic affair is launched.


Since his time at the ministry of foreign affairs, Zhou Enlai, Prime Minister, advocated a peaceful coexistence with the Occident, following the impasse of the Korean war and the Geneva agreements. But with Mao Zedong, they refuse the request of the American team to visit China. Then, Mao reverses that decision and decides to invite the American team. He would have been seduced by this mix between sport and diplomacy. One attributes to him these words: “This Zhuang Zedong does not simply play table tennis, but he has a talent for foreign affairs and a fine political spirit”. The story can then be written.


The sportsmen open the game. On 10th April 1971, nine American players cross the bridge between Hong Kong and China and give exhibition matches during one week. They visit the Great Wall and the Summer Palace and attend the ballet. The politicians conclude the affair. On 19th February, the American president travels to China. Two months following this visit, Zhuang Zedong travels to the United States as chief of the table tennis delegation. He will carry out his visit in North America and Latin America.


Forty-five years after Nixon, the American President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro rely on diplomacy through sport. On 22nd March 2016, they are spectators at a match in Havana. It is, of course, a baseball match, a sport charged with symbolism between the two countries. We know that the United States and Cuba share a common passion for baseball. The two presidents didn’t fail to highlight it during this official visit during which the American president expressed his willingness to reach a final point in the cold war.

Sugar Kings

The Estadio Latinoamericano, venue of the match isn't just any old stadium. A stadium that becomes again the bringer of reconciliation, when it had become sixty-two years before a place symbolizing the breaking down of relations. The stadium was associated with a forgotten moment in the history of Cuban and American baseball. It hosted the Sugar Kings, the first and only Cuban club to reach the major American baseball league. In 1954, the Sugar Kings encountered the Toronto Maple Leafs, in the opening match of the season of the International League. There was a promising time for baseball, for Cuban-American relations and for the perspective of seeing Havana welcoming a Major League club, thanks to the Sugar Kings.


But politics took priority over sports. The Sugar Kings became a major political issue, one of the last broken threads in increasingly strained relations between Cuba and the United States. The team has been forced to relocate in New Jersey in 1960. Two years later, the United States decreed an embargo on exchanges with Cuba, thus freezing relations between the two countries. In view of the symbolism of baseball in the two countries, the departure of the Sugar Kings is amongst the high points, despite being unknown, of the annihilation of the relations between the two countries.


In Washington, Beijing or Havana, sport is well and truly a tool of diplomacy, indeed a geopolitical one. We are not at the stage of intuition mentioned in the previous article. We are well and truly in the framework of an explained and organized diplomacy, that's to say, procedures which can be clearly identified. Earlier, Zhuang Zedong taught us that diplomacy through sport was a combination of friendliness and competition. However, the latter is nowadays still the best asset of States to promote their image on the international stage. The organization of major international competitions remains a great classic in terms of diplomacy through sport. Let us review our classics. Today, I offer the first of these.


The minimum of a sports diplomacy is to start to define it. Following the rejection of the Paris 2012 candidature and for the purpose of the 2024 Olympic Games, France defines in 2015, we could finally say, a sports diplomacy. The homeland of De Coubertin has probably understood that such diplomacy assumes defining an efficient strategy. It must be said that in 2005, the slap had been severe. The country of the creation of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was deprived of the 2012 Olympic Games. It must be said that lobbying has been there. During the XXth century, an efficient sports diplomacy didn’t necessarily need efficient means, but only a willingness to convince. Let us remember!


On 12 September 2005, Henry Kissinger commented thus on the rejection of Paris for the organization of the 2012 Olympic Games: “the French didn’t understand what the IOC is. Many of its members are coming from the poor countries”. Maybe the then French president didn’t know that the IOC is sensitive to the lobbying practices. The key to success is there. A member of the Olympic institution commented on the French President’s attitude thus: “Jacques Chirac spent eight hours in Singapore, of which three were unnecessary ones for the opening night. The remaining time, he shook hands, drank cocktails in public with voters”.


Tony Blair, as for him, was locked in his suite for two full days. There he met forty members and nobody will ever know what was said there”. Definitely, Blair’s lobbying was far from corresponding to the ethics argued by IOC. But, its president, the Belgian Jacques Rogge, let that go. It is there that Paris best demonstrated the accuracy of Henry Kissinger’s verdict: “the French did not understand what the IOC is”.


February 2017, Paris, France do give a sense of hope. Budapest just withdrew its candidature, the French capital remains in competition for 2024 with Los Angeles. This time, there is even a double reason for hope. The IOC could appoint at the same time the organizers of the 2024 and 2028 Games. Thomas Bach, IOC president, announced a probable double attribution, declaring in December 2016 that the current designation process “produced too many losers”. It could then lead to having two winners. It would guarantee that Paris would finally welcome the Games, not necessarily at the coveted date (2024), but welcoming it in spite of everything. Since 1924, it could be the end of a long wait.


Normandy, a French region is renowned for the hesitation of its people in making decisions. An uncertainty formulated thus: “Maybe so! Maybe no!”. The change of rules suits some and annoys others. For some, the option of a double vote could satisfy all involved parties, the two combatting cities as well as the IOC. An attribution of the Games in 2028 could be “always better than nothing” for Paris in outsider position, or for Los Angeles, that appears to be in the lead. But the change does not satisfy the French candidature managers. These exclude the set of trade-offs of an appointment in 2028: “We are exclusively looking to 2024 because it is the unique mandate received by our team and our project is only possible for 2024”.

Next: 21 April 2017 – Sport diplomacy issues (4): Boycott? In and out.

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