How the United States uses athletics to form alliances

When U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visited the Middle East last fall, he didn’t go there just to talk about oil and natural gas, terrorism or the war in Ukraine.

He also went there to talk about soccer.

Before the U.S. national team’s World Cup opener in Qatar, Blinken joined members of the American squad and dozens of young Qatari boys and girls for a soccer clinic, where he talked about one of the most useful implements in his diplomatic tool box: sports.

“We use sports as a way of connecting people, connecting people to our country. Whenever I go around the world — whatever, again, our differences may be — sports brings us together, unites us, connects us,” he said.

Toward that end the State Department’s sports diplomacy program has sent surfers to Papau New Guinea, taken ambassadors such as Shaquille O’Neal to Cuba and organized sports camps in which Israelis and Palestinians both have taken part. It also brought hundreds of leaders from grassroots sports organizations from around the world to the U.S. as part of a mentoring program designed to encourage and empower leaders while expanding athletic opportunities for young athletes back home.

And it does all that on an annual budget of about $6 million — so small that even in the hyper-partisan political climate in Washington, sports diplomacy has remained beneath the fray, finding fans on the blue and red teams.

Young soccer players kick balls during a sports diplomancy event hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 21.

(Ron Przysucha / State Department)

“Sports diplomacy,” said Ashleigh Huffman, director of the sports diplomacy division for the last 15 months, “is the best-kept secret in the State Department.”

Although the program, which is part of the educational and cultural affairs department headed by Lee Satterfield, the assistant secretary of State, was formally established following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the concept of using sports to further diplomatic aims is hardly new. President Nixon’s ground-breaking trip to Beijing in 1972, for example, would not have happened if not for an exchange of table tennis players between the U.S. and China a year earlier, which led to a thaw in relations between the two countries.

And the U.S. isn’t the only country that believes in the power of sports. Australia, Spain and England all have government ministers or civil-service actors who are doing that work while the European Union has an entire strategy devoted to sports diplomacy.

“Sport is that universal language, right? No matter where you go, you can roll out a ball and it just transcends differences,” said Huffman, 39, who was among the featured speakers at the espnW: Women + Sports Summit in Ojai in November. “The programs, the exchanges, connect us through sport, tap into this shared universal language.”

But sports exchanges aren’t always used benignly. Sometimes they hide far more nefarious aims.

Four days after hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics — which were founded to promote peace through sports — Russia invaded Crimea. Nazi Germany staged the 1936 Summer and Winter Games three years before its tanks rolled into Poland. More recently, Qatar held more than 600 international sporting events, including the world track championships, a Formula One Grand Prix, and international bowling, squash, table tennis and equestrian events, in the decade before last year’s World Cup in an effort, critics say, to use sports to hide the stain of the country’s abysmal human rights record. That’s the same thing critics say Saudi Arabia is doing with its LIV golf tour, a practice that has become so prevalent it now has a name: sportswashing.

The U.S. sports diplomacy program engages with embassies and consulates overseas to highlight strategic foreign-policy goals for which sports could be a good diplomatic tool. Say a surfing program in Barbados approaches the embassy in Bridgetown for support. Diplomats there might then settle on climate change as a related U.S. government priority and Huffman and her staff of five contact the World Surf League, the International Surfing Assn. or some other group for help in putting a program together that links surfing with climate change.

Huffman, who played college basketball at Eastern Kentucky, said she has engaged with virtually every sport, including skateboarding, breakdancing, mountain climbing and baseball, although basketball and soccer are the most-requested ones and U.S. national team star Megan Rapinoe is the most-requested athlete.

“One industry where the United States is still seen as a superpower is the sports sphere,” she said. “When we talk about American values and we’re talking about freedom and justice and equality, if that’s really what we stand for, how can we look at places that are less free, less equal and say we don’t have some kind of responsibility to share what we’ve been given? That we don’t have some kind of responsibility to equip and empower locals to change their communities if they need to?

“Where there’s privilege there is responsibility. And we have a tremendous amount of privilege in the United States.”

Ashleigh Huffman, division chief of sports diplomacy, second from right, gathers with the inaugural class of the State Department’s espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program.

(State Department)

At home, the State Department works with the Center for Sport, Peace and Society at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, which Huffman helped found, to implement the espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program. That five-week exchange program links U.S. mentors and sports-based organizations with leaders representing grassroots sports programs from more than 72 countries.

The most recent class of 15, which arrived last fall, included delegates from Kosovo, Croatia, India, Zanzibar and Egypt.

“They’re the experts in their community. We can’t copy and paste what we might think will work there because we don’t know the context. Our role is to come alongside them and help them and support them,” said Carolyn Spellings, the chief of evaluation, research and accountability at the Center for Sport and a clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

Spellings, like Huffman, is convinced sports can also be effective in more typical diplomatic situations such as conflict resolution because it breaks down barriers, making negotiation and compromise easier.

“It humanizes the other person,” she said. “It kind of strips down those labels that you might have for the other.”

Sports also reinforces the importance of rules, which can aid diplomacy.

“There are rules in a society that you have to follow. Sport has the opportunity to reach those things,” said Spellings, who grew up playing basketball and soccer. “As the competition gets heavier the consequences can be more severe than a 7-year-old playing soccer. But sports is unique in that way.

“Sport is not the magic solution to everything. But it can be helpful to start to solve these problems.”

Take Title IX, a uniquely American piece of legislation that prohibited sex-based discrimination in any school or any other education program that received funding from the federal government. Although the language of the law was not limited to sports, that’s where its effect has been most widely felt, opening opportunities to tens of millions of female athletes.

The sports diplomacy program has tried to use that as an example of how small change can have a big effect.

“We’re taking these lessons from Title IX and applying it in Uganda and Brazil and the Philippines and it’s making a real difference,” Huffman said. “Sports is a low-cost, high-impact tool. It really changes the life of people and then that person can change the life of others, their school, their community and outward from there.”

She speaks from experience. Basketball helped pay for her education and since getting her doctorate, she’s gone to three dozen countries to coach young girls, women and refugees, teaching lessons that go well beyond the triangle offense and the half-court press.

“If we can come together on the field and athlete [or] teammate can be our first identity, then all of these other identities can kind of become secondary and you can actually have a conversation,” said Huffman, who wrote her masters thesis on sport in the Israeli-Palestinian context. “I see that it works. I know that it works.”

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