American soccer fans cheered loudly Sunday night as the U.S. Women’s National Team defeated Japan in a 5 – 2 win, bringing the FIFA World Cup trophy home for the first time in 16 years. More than 20 million viewers tuned in to watch the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup championship match, shattering TV rating records for soccer in the process. In light of the work done here at Meridian International Center, this victory is also an opportunity to bring attention to the mission and goals of sports diplomacy: a way for the universal passion for sports to bring people of different linguistic and sociocultural backgrounds together. Utilizing sports diplomacy, the U.S. Department of State and its partners have expressed an active commitment to empowering women and girls in sports around the world.
Beginning in 2006, SportsUnited, the Sports Diplomacy Division of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, has involved thousands of people in sports exchanges. Using sports as a foundation, the Division “exposes foreign participants to American culture while providing them with an opportunity to establish links to U.S. sports professionals and peers”. In exchange, American participants are able to learn about the cultures and challenges that young people from other countries face. In the last year alone, 23 countries, 249 Americans, and 420 foreign participants were involved in international soccer programming and sports diplomacy efforts. Most recently, U.S. Sports Envoys visited Guatemala to engage at-risk and disadvantaged youth through free sports clinics. While there, former U.S. National team players taught participants about gender equality in sports and promoted the growth of soccer for women and girls. Empowering Women and Girls through Sports, a recently adopted initiative of the State Department, implements year-round programs to engage, equip and inspire women and girls to become more involved in sports around the world.
Meridian International Center has had the opportunity to partner in the administration of sports exchanges that provide the dialogue and resources necessary for women athletes around the world to achieve equality both on and off the playing field. To celebrate the success of 2014’s sports exchange programs, the Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP) hosted a luncheon on the Meridian campus, with special guests Assistant Secretary Evan Ryan of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and Olympian Michelle Kwan in attendance. The program paired women sports executives with emerging women leaders from around the world. Donned in traditional dress from their respective countries, participants posed for photos showcasing their involvement in sports, each framed within the backdrop of Meridian’s beautiful architecture and gardens. Earlier this year, program associates at Meridian also organized an International Visitor Leadership Program project for Brazil on “Promoting Social Inclusion and Civic Responsibility through Sports”. Among other activities, this group was able to meet with the Black Women in Sport Foundation in Philadelphia and the Utah Chapter of the Girls on the Run program in Salt Lake City. Additionally, as detailed in a previous blog post, alumni of the Study of the U.S. Institute for Student Leaders for Public Policy and Government Leadership Program have gone on to make change in their home communities by empowering youth through school sports programs.
The World Cup victory this past weekend was a resounding achievement not only for the United States, but for female athletes around the world. Yet, much still remains in the way of gender equality in both the sports world and our world today, making the growth and implementation of exchange programs that promote sports diplomacy all the more important. Exchange programs that allow for sports to play a role in advancing the rights of women and girls around the world must be continuously pursued, and Meridian International Center stands in steadfast partnership with this commitment.