Beyond “an iron fist in a velvet glove” : American people-to-people sport diplomacy during the late and post-Cold War eras (1980-2020)

Schelfhout, Sam Thomas
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As the debate surrounding the relationship between sport and politics remains heated in American popular discourse, the conundrum permeates the field of sport diplomacy and sport’s legitimacy as a political instrument. Nations popularly wielded the propagandistic power of sport since the beginning of the Cold War, using sporting events to achieve foreign policy objectives. States, governing bodies, and other nonstate actors use public diplomacy to understand cultures, attitudes, and behavior; build and manage relationships; and influence opinions and actions to advance interests and values. Sport is increasingly becoming an attractive option in public diplomacy, and the incorporation of uniform mechanisms for achieving cultural mediation objectives across governments has become the norm in several governments worldwide. In the United States, the mission of the Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and the Sport Diplomacy Division is to develop relationships between Americans and citizens from nations worldwide by sharing a common goal through sports. While sport diplomacy is primarily used to advance interstate relations and foreign policy objectives on behalf of national governments, private actors have increasingly embraced the practice in achieving a broader range of benefits. Leaders within the Department of State and an increasing number of non-state actors must continue to harness the unique power sport possesses in bridging differences, developing positive associations with foreign countries, and advancing the myriad of benefits that sport can present. Emerging trends, such as digital diplomacy and esports diplomacy, influence program leaders to continuously improve and adapt programming to reach as many global citizens as possible. This project will focus on how the United States government and non-governmental actors interpret and implement people-to-people sport diplomacy in the post-Cold War era. This research employs a mixed-methods approach, utilizing oral histories, content analyses, and official documents from physical and digital archives to illuminate how people-to-people sports exchanges are conducted in the U.S. and abroad. Reflecting on the history of people-to-people sports exchanges and insights from professionals who have previously steered such programs, governmental and non-governmental agencies should explore and encourage opportunities to engage in people-to-people sport diplomacy initiatives.