The Curveball and the Pitch: Sport Diplomacy in the Age of Global MediaSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
In the first half of 1999, the United States hosted sport exchanges with three of the world's five remaining communist nations. The United States has longstanding embargoes and no formal diplomatic relations with two of them: Cuba and North Korea. In March, and then again in May, the Major League Baseball (MLB) Baltimore Orioles played the Cuban National baseball team. In June, the North Korean women's soccer team, one of 16 nations to qualify for the Third FIFA Women's World Cup (WWC), played two games before losing to eventual champion United States at Foxboro stadium outside Boston.
The largest communist power in the world, China, also qualified for the WWC and met the U.S. team in the final on July 10. Before the largest soccer audience ever on U.S. television, China lost a 5-4 shootout after regulation play ended in a 0-0 tie. The appearance of these two powerhouse teams, however, was less noteworthy than that of the North Koreans, who hail from the most isolated society on earth. Yet it was only 28 years ago that the Chinese moved to tear down their own self-imposed "Great Wall" by calling for a series of ping-pong matches with then archenemy United States. Three months after the competition, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was in Beijing, preparing the way for President Richard Nixon's triumphal tour of China in 1972. That table tennis was a sport in which the Chinese were world-beaters didn't register with most Americans. At the time, sport exchanges were just so much ideological preening or, alternatively, platforms for idealistic expressions of cosmic camaraderie. The cautious Chinese gave sport diplomacy a higher calling and a new role in helping to brief or prepare publics for the normalization of relations between their nations. The use of sport exchanges in making interactions between citizens of two unfriendly nations acceptable is a fixture of the foreign policy arsenal today.
Even so, several transformations suggest that the fields where sport diplomacy is played today are chalking new boundaries: the growing and uncritical acceptance of sports as an economic growth strategy; the pervasive commercialization and privatization of sports; and the devolution of power to international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), including sport organizations, in policy making. The recent sport exchanges between the United States, Cuba and North Korea offer a unique opportunity to examine the changing role, utility and political efficacy of sport diplomacy as the world sport order takes shape in the twenty-first century.
The Curveball: Cuba
It is an accepted fiction that had Fidel Castro not negotiated his own revolutionary franchise, he would have secured a lucrative contract pitching for the Washington Senators baseball team. Today, of course, the world watches Castro still throwing deft curveballs to right-handed senators while anticipating capitalist steals. Nine presidential administrations later, the Washington Senators have long since become the Texas Rangers. The construction of their newest stadium – with its exclusive skyboxes – was directed by GOP presidential hopeful (and then part-owner) George W. Bush, Jr., son of old Castro enemy, former President George Bush. In these aerie retreats, candidate Bush can host PAC schmoozers interested in, for example, ridding Cuba of its current government. Still, as in former times, politicians from both parties and the Clinton Administration have come to understand how hard it is to get a relief pitcher for Castro. Nowhere was this more evident than at the May 4, 1999 exhibition game held at Baltimore's Camden Yards stadium between the American League Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban National baseball team.
A month earlier, on March 28, Castro had hosted Commissioner Bud Selig and Orioles owner Peter Angelos at the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana. In that game, the Cubans had lost to the Orioles in the eleventh inning by a score of 3-2. The games had been billed by Selig as "transcending baseball" and singled out by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as part of a series of expanded educational, cultural and other athletic exchanges with a nation most Americans associate with the three "Cs": Communism, Castro and Cigars.
Most American pundits took Commissioner Selig's statement for what it was: an overture tinctured with his interests in giving MLB an increased presence in Cuba. It was obvious, however, as Selig earnestly sang the U.S. national anthem in the Estadio Latinoamericano (standing next to Castro's unfurled head), that this game was also about the nationalist claims of two countries to one sport: baseball is America's pastime and Cuba's passion. Ironically, in the age of the free agent, playing for the Baltimore Orioles in Havana became a patriotic act.
The second game, held in Baltimore a month later, delivered many of the same mixed economic and political messages. Though some sportswriters directed their critiques at the United States by comparing annual payrolls (the Orioles' $81.4 million to the Cubans' reported $2,250), they failed to remark on the striking economic similarities between the major league baseball monopoly and the state-owned enterprise of the Cuban government. Recent attempts in the United States by new leagues to join the baseball business continue to be brutally crushed. Moreover, Oriole baseball park Camden Yards represents the best in retro baseball architecture and consumer amenities. In Cuba, the Estadio Latinoamericano represents the best in communist crumbling and basic shortages. Yet, both secured public subsidies for their construction: Camden Yards in state bonds paid for through a lottery and the Havana stadium through state allocations. It is clear that Orioles owner Peter Angelos wanted to demonstrate his own power. Defections were a sore point for Castro. Since 1991, at least 35 Cuban baseball players have defected, setting their sights on the major leagues. In 1997, pitcher Orlando Hernandez made a sensationalized sea-borne escape from Cuba, then promptly signed a $6.6 million contract with the New York Yankees. The Cuban National team did not include on its travel roster major-league caliber shortstop German Mesa. The official reason was that his batting averages were down. Cuban exile radio stations told a different story: he was being punished for his contacts with U.S. "agents." But in an ironic twist, the game appeared to be taking place in Havana rather than Baltimore: American fans were not allowed to buy big blocs of tickets and banners and political chanting were prohibited. Four protesters were put in handcuffs and escorted from the stadium for on-field disturbances. Outside, U.S. Congressman Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and a thousand Castro opponents tried to get the game called. This group was quick to point out that basic freedoms afforded Americans had been abrogated to court a dictator who denied the same rights to his people at home.
The irony is that older lessons traditionally taught through such sporting exchanges had been forgotten. In the second game, the Cubans routed the Orioles 12-6, bringing back memories of medal counts from the Cold War era, when the arms race included athletic arms manipulated for national boasting and economic system influence- peddling. During the Cold War, a nation's athletic triumphs helped legitimize its way of life. In the 60s and 70s, Cuba sent its coaches and its construction engineers to build new stadiums in developing nations to encourage governments running unattached to join the communist team.
But gone was the communist swagger. The ideological home runs had been hit out of the Estadio long ago. Replacing ideology was the concern expressed by many Cuban fans that having to play with wooden bats put their stars at a disadvantage. They failed to say the aluminum bats they usually play with are harder to come by, thanks to the 38-year-old U.S. embargo.
What do the Cubans have left? Nationalist pride, knowing they are the better ballplayers. Though Cuba can no longer afford to sell its revolution, it touts its independence from the cultural imperialism of American baseball by supporting a league of all-star players not yet co-opted by the glamour, glitz and greed offered by an appearance in the American "World" series. The exhibition games left the Cuban sport powerhouse temporarily electrified. Just think, the Cubans might well wonder: how much better would our Cuban athletes be if they were as pampered as professionals in the American major leagues?
The Pitch: North Korea
The North Korean women's soccer team may have had similar thoughts when its delegation arrived at the luxurious Legends Resort in Vernon, New Jersey on June 4,1999 to prepare for its first appearance at the WWC. That the North Korean women were there because they had beaten the more experienced Japanese (placing second in the XIth Asian Cup) was the first surprise. That the North Koreans had accepted the bid to play in the United States was the second.
Like Cuba, North Korea has distinguished itself by "outcommunisting" the communists, lasting beyond the fall of the Soviet Union by eight years. Similarly, where Cuba has Castro, El Máximo Líder, North Korea had Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, who died in 1994. And like Cuba, North Korea has experienced an economic mudslide. Indeed, of the two, North Korea has suffered more. Years of inefficient agricultural production and extreme weather conditions have left North Korean rice bowls virtually empty. It is estimated that since the mid 90s at least half a million people have died of starvation.
North Korea has also managed to gain more notoriety for actions characterizing renegade nations, including its interest in developing nuclear weapons. But unlike Castro, the most sociable of socialists, the heir to North Korea's presidency, Kim Jong Il, like his father before him, advocates juche, a philosophy of self-reliance which strongly discourages economic and political exchange with any foreign country. The juche philosophy spills over into sport.
If the North Koreans participate in sporting events at all, it is on their own terms. Sometimes they don't show up to play, offering no explanation. More frequently, they are spoilsports. When South Korea received the bid for the 1988 Summer Olympics, North Korea demanded a venue change, called for a boycott and then attempted to convince other nations Seoul would not be safe. Their country's rogue reputation, as well as mystery surrounding their soccer program, preceded the North Koreans on the eve of their debut in the WWC. Based on tournament rules, they were guaranteed three games. The team lost first to popular Nigeria 2-1; then won the second game over hapless Denmark 3-1; and was finally eliminated by a surprised United States by a score of 3-0. The North Korean women exhibited a gritty resilience in all of their matches, though sports commentators categorized their play as "predictable." And yet more predictable still was the media coverage itself. The broadcast booth offered few cultural or political observations or even up-to-date information on North Korean sport. For their part, the North Koreans expressed disappointment the team's play had not been good enough to qualify them for a spot in the 2000 Olympics.
It is not unfair to suggest the North Koreans deserve their renegade image. On the pitch and in the political arena, they are hard to play with. Yet, in several ways traditional media accounts are outdated. New economic and political realities, for example, are making it difficult for the North Koreans to adhere to the juche philosophy. Western concern over their nuclear ambitions and humanitarian aid to deal with the ravages of famine have opened up the country to foreigners, especially INGOs. Equally important, initiatives proposed in 1998 by South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, most notably his "sunshine" policy, have moved the divided Korean Peninsula in a new direction. This initiative depends heavily on people-to-people contact; previously it has been unlawful for any South Korean to speak with a North Korean. Singled out among these contacts are sport exchanges. Since the announcement of the "sunshine" policy, several have been floated, the most significant that the 2002 World Cup, co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, include some North Korean venues.
For the historically minded, the 2002 World Cup joint venue sharing idea sounds all too familiar. When Seoul won the 1988 Olympics bid, one of the ploys the North Koreans used to crash South Korea's great "coming out" party was by demanding that some of the events be held in Pyongyang.
Yet, the soccer team's visit may signal a subtle shift in North Korean foreign policy, as it hones its own meaning of "coming out." This change does not reflect an interest in using sport exchanges to join the global village economically or socially. Far from it – the North Koreans remain publicly autarkic and reluctant to "let the sun shine in." The economic collapse, however, has led to increased corruption (as factions within North Korea compete to obtain food and other scarce supplies) and internal unrest. As a consequence, Kim Jong Il may be willing to enlist sport diplomacy to pursue two ambitious goals.
First, by playing in the WWC and other global sport events, the North Koreans hope to gain from the political legitimacy conferred automatically on any country invited to field a team. They wish to send a signal that, even if they are spoilsports, they are determined to enter the international political game. More specifically, the North Koreans believe sport diplomacy will help them establish formal government-to-government or INGO relations (where an organization like FIFA, for example, acts as an intermediary), while keeping strict control over people-to-people contacts. In this regard, the leadership is relying on its success in training both the country's athletes and its people to maintain discipline in rejecting foreign ideas.
Second, the North Koreans are more amenable to joint venue plans because they desperately need economic aid from any source. If, for example, World Cup 2002 co- hosts South Korea and Japan are willing to pay for the rebuilding of Pyongyang – where more money has been spent on statues of Kim Il Sung than on the infrastructure necessary to host a World Cup soccer match – the North Koreans are willing to take the offer more seriously.
The North Korean strategy is fraught with enormous risks, intended as it is to use sport diplomacy to secure the minimum political credentials required to participate in world affairs while ensuring economic viability and, thus, the survival of the regime. If there were a betting line on this game strategy, it would be unfavorable to North Korea. Their leaders may have miscalculated the odds, having failed to grasp that the political and economic stakes of sport have increased substantially.
The Prospects for Sport Diplomacy
Today, insisting sport is "just a game" seems almost quaint. This fact troubles purists who cling to the notion that sport and politics do not belong in the same match. For others, sport's rite of passage into the real world offers an opportunity to make predictions about its ability to contribute to diplomacy in the post-Cold War era. I would like to offer a number of observations to initiate some old-fashioned sport bantering. First, sport diplomacy will expand because the global reach and power of multinational corporations allows them to privatize sport diplomacy. Sport is now pervasively professionalized, commercial, profit-driven and free-market oriented. More importantly, sport is global (though unevenly so), because of revolutions in the transportation and telecommunications/media industries.
Thus, sport is increasingly integral to the business plans of multinational media and entertainment conglomerates. This puts sport on the buy list of enterprises whose focus has been informing a nation's citizens and educating them about the business of government, but whose bottom line currently dictates a shift from citizenship, which has borders, to consumerism, which does not. These corporations package news and entertainment services (known as "infotainment") using a wide array of telecommunications technologies to sell a consumer lifestyle. Cable News Network (CNN) founder Ted Turner was the first to take advantage of the synergy between sport diplomacy and its distribution when he bought the professional sports teams in Atlanta. Turner went on to engage in his own private sport diplomacy as founder of the Goodwill Games. Turner Broadcasting Service (TBS) promoted daily coverage of the Games, and CNN highlighted its scores and results. Australian impresario Rupert Murdoch has an even larger vision. His News Corporation owns MLB's LA Dodgers; Australian Rugby Super League; Fox SportsNet (NFL TV rights); Fox/Liberty Network (MLB, NHL and NBA rights); BSkyB (European soccer); Star-TV (Asian cricket and soccer); and the Golf Channel. It is perhaps only a matter of time before Murdoch sponsors his own Olympics. Second, the global sport labor market and global migration or diasporas create new markets and opportunities to engage in sport diplomacy. Sport managers and coaches are aching to get the best talent. The pressure to field winning teams ensures an international sport labor market and sometimes requires delicate negotiations between countries as teams come to resemble mini-United Nations. Even isolated North Korea is not immune. In 1997, the Utah Jazz went through lots of red tape trying to acquire North Korean basketball player, 7'9" Ri Myong Hun. He got as far as Canada when the State Department blocked him out, citing the 1950 Trading With the Enemy Act, the U.S. law that prohibits all trade and contacts with hostile nations.
The globally-oriented sport owner appreciates diasporas now more than ever. Diasporas are financially attractive, especially in mature markets like the United States. The Cuban-American community has become a potent economic and political force in south Florida, the region where most Cuban exiles settled after the 1959 revolution. Cuban-Americans closely follow Cuban players in the American professional leagues, among them, Livan Hernandez (Florida Marlins) and his half brother Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez (New York Yankees). Cubans also track former Cuban team stars in the major leagues, following their progress mostly on Spanish language radio broadcasts. It should come as no surprise then that sport marketers are spending more resources targeting ethnic groups.
Niche marketing potentially undermines sport's claim as a universal language that brings people of differing backgrounds and cultures together. Critics argue that cultural branding excludes those not part of the "signaled" group. As the WWC demonstrated, sport exchanges may be reaching out to new fans, but the games may be seen and experienced differently because of fragmented marketing by customized media. Two- tiered marketing, for example, is visible in sport arenas. Fans in skyboxes at Camden Yards get a different experience than fans in bleachers. Income gap marketing and cultural branding may be economically profitable for a nation of consumers but politically counterproductive for a nation of citizens attempting to resolve their differences by seeking common consensus.
Even so, the economic effects of diasporas and their political consequences are merging and, lately, have revealed a sport diplomacy tailored, or institutionalized, as a form of "gesture" politics. This sport diplomacy is internally directed – it is not intended to brief publics or move citizens in a new direction in dealing with another hostile nation. Instead, it is meant to stall or put off a policy debate for another day, preferably after elections.
The Havana/Baltimore exhibition games were an example of the "gesture" form. Months before the games were approved, a groundswell, cobbled together by the dialogueros (those who favor dialogue with the Castro government and normalizing relations), had been lobbying for the Clinton Administration to lift the embargo. The vocal anti-Castro organizations rallied around the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which had gone even further to strengthen sanctions against Cuba. The Clinton Administration figured it needed hardliner support in electorally crucial Florida, but had to placate the growing dialoguero coalition. The Havana/Baltimore games seemed a small price to pay. In this way, sport diplomacy was employed to appeal simultaneously to different constituencies with conflicting agendas. The beisbol diplomacy signaled to the constituency favoring dialogue that a change in American Cuban policy was in the works; at the same time it showed the constituency opposed to any policy change that the contact was, after all, "just a game." Either way, the exchange represented a gesture and nothing more. Gestures such as the baseball exhibition are appealing to politicians today because they are dispensable, similar to the bat or t-shirt promotion days team owners use to fill empty publicly subsidized stadium seats. The danger is, however, that these gestures reinforce a diplomacy of entertainment and leisure over a diplomacy of education or one that involves work and hard choices.
As it happens, these harder choices are increasingly being taken by organizations outside regular government venues, among them sport INGOs. The incursion of INGOs into the policy process has two ramifications for sport diplomacy. First, in addition to transactions with governments, sport organizations must now address the concerns of non-sport organizations, whose single-issue expertise and rapid-fire communications networks make them a potent force. Among those expressing reservations about the American baseball exchange with Cuba were human rights activists. Once the games were announced, they went on the offensive, informing the American public through several media sources of the trial of four prominent Cuban dissidents taking place at the same time as the Havana exhibition.
Sport organizations such as MLB, FIFA, and the International Olympic
Committee (IOC), as well as governments promoting their countries for world sport events, ignore these groups at their peril. The IOC, in particular, has been hard hit by what it regards as INGO meddling. Before the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, an advocacy group called Atlanta Plus called on the IOC to ban countries with Olympic delegations that prohibit or heavily restrict female participation in sport. Though the IOC refused to yield to the group's demands, the publicity embarrassed the IOC and highlighted its ambivalent response toward women's participation.
The Atlanta Plus illustration also demonstrates the willingness of sport INGOs to inject their own interests into policy deliberations and, on occasion, even compete with government bodies. On opening day of the WWC, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and FIFA president Sepp Blatter announced a new partnership between the UN and FIFA to promote world peace. As interest in the event grew, the U.S. Soccer Federation president was moved to proclaim, "We want to do a world tour. We want to spread the gospel of sports equity. We want to send them to Cape Town, Jerusalem and Riyadh."
These public challenges, whether gestures or not, raise the level of play required by those who govern sport.
Sport Diplomacy And Efficacy
In a certain sense, the "amateurism" of sport's most visible diplomats – athletes and federation officials – has given sport diplomacy its enduring power. Sport diplomacy continues to be used as an unofficial form of diplomacy in which contacts between hostile nations can be started or renewed on an informal basis. Athletes and sport directors are non-threatening because they are not assigned a political agenda and are limited in their capacity to engage in diplomatic repartee. Also, nations find the "briefing" function of sport diplomacy – using it to prepare publics for a comment on or even a change of policy – appealing reasons to rely on it.
But the expectations for sport diplomacy and exchanges have expanded. Since the end of the Cold War, governments have used sports not only to placate domestic constituencies but to showcase their countries' investment climate. The recent Olympics corruption scandal, centering on the 2002 Winter Games bid of Salt Lake City, is emblematic of this shift. Giving gifts to IOC site selection committee members in exchange for votes is based on the calculation that "buying" an Olympics is a good economic strategy. This practice places the host city on the global economy's "fastest growing" list and makes it several high-powered and well-placed "fast friends." Indeed, one of the principles underlying the Olympic movement, which the world knows by heart, is that sport exchanges promote international understanding and friendship. In dispelling stereotypes and prejudices, playing together makes everyone realize people of different nationalities are "folks, just like us."
There are two concerns the friendship view raises. First, the people-to-people approach fails to take into account pivotal structural differences, among them historical and geopolitical realities that constrain the range of action for politicians and diplomats. Moreover, it treats the work of diplomats cavalierly. While INGOs are taking a more active role in world affairs, governments and those working as public servants have hardly disappeared. The Havana/Baltimore baseball games had been under negotiation for three years prior to their approval by the U.S. State Department. Requests by MLB for an exchange go as far back as the mid 70s.
Second, sport invokes loyalty. This means sport breeds fans. Fans, as their name implies (fan-atics), have an emotional investment, and sometimes a territorial attitude, toward their team and athletes. As a result, sport is not always the best venue for promoting goodwill between countries. Sport is not like other forms of cultural diplomacy, such as an art exhibit. Sport exchanges are highly charged because they involve competition and, often, physical contact. It is thus more likely the sport exchange will end in a fracas. When this happens, the potential for the sport exchange to bring people together is lost. The competition merely intensifies enmity; sport severs itself from the civility required by rules and diplomacy, becoming a prelude to incivility and, in the worst case, violence.
A Challenge for Sport Diplomacy
The two forays into sport diplomacy involving Cuba and North Korea did not end in violence. No doubt the soccer loss and the baseball split invite rematches. The opportunity to play another game makes it easier to build on previous ties. Nevertheless, it is necessary to strike a balance. If sport is used solely for propaganda, to display a muscular nationalism and ideological prowess or to market a consumerist lifestyle, the chance to educate is surely lost.
Sport cannot be "just a game" either. If members of the sport establishment want the world to recognize them as professionals, they can't be amateurs in world affairs. Athletes may not have chosen to be role models, but they are. They may not like being ambassadors, but they must be. When athletes tour another country, they need to know where it is on the map, what its customs are and that they might be called on to comment on an issue with political import. They may have the better game, but that does not necessarily boost their claim to the better way of life. While a sport exchange cannot transcend deep-seeded suspicions, structural impediments and profound disagreements between nations, it can have the salutary effect of offering fresh opportunities to comment, inform and educate athletes, fans and governments on policy matters. Sport diplomacy has a place in the global media age, but its most compelling statement is still made on the field. Unlike politics, where the gesture is always suspect, sport should ideally be all about gestures. The extension of hands to those who have been deliberately felled, accepted by those who have fallen, are acts of contrition and forgiveness. Sport diplomacy begins ultimately with the grace of one competitor who decides in the heat of the moment to respect an opponent's right to continue to play the game. Such gestures alone are a worthy enough goal for sport's aspiring diplomats.
Peter Brewington, "U.S. Team to Consider a World Tour," USA Today, 8 July 1999, 1C.
Jeanine A. DeLay is an adjunct lecturer in the U-M Division of Kinesiology, Department of Sport Management and Communication, where she teaches sport ethics and international sport policy. DeLay and several of her colleagues comprise an informal group interested in public policy issues related to sport.