By Ambassador Stuart Holliday, CEO of Meridian International Center
While the world was preparing for the quadrennial spectacle that would be the World Cup, a crowd at the Allianz Area in Munich broke out into John Denver’s, ‘Country Roads.’
On Sunday, November 13, the National Football League (NFL) had a historic, first-ever regular-season game in Germany as part of their NFL International Series (a series of American football played outside the United States) and returned to Mexico City for the San Francisco 49ers vs. Arizona Cardinals on November 21 as part of the first regular-season game of the year played in Mexico.
But as crowds in Germany and Mexico watched their newly found teams score, the world witnessed authentic sports diplomacy firsthand, a feat rare outside of the pomp and circumstance of significant international convenings like the Olympics or the ongoing World Cup. Global leaders are reminded of the innate power sports have to bring people together despite our shared challenges, even if the sport is not familiar.
Sports represent one of the most significant global activities that bring us together in a world where too many things can divide us. And seeing powerful globalization through sports continues to systemize a positive, unique path to transcend today’s differences by harnessing this universal passion.
The power of sports has never been more critical. We know that countries can no longer act alone or bilaterally to find solutions to our shared global challenges. As diplomacy evolves in the 21st century, we must embrace sports diplomacy as a tool for private and public sectors to engage in foreign policy priorities in an increasingly introspective world.
Peter O’Reilly, Executive Vice President NFL, Club Business, Major Events & International, said: “Growing the game internationally sees us continue to connect with cities and communities globally, using the power of football as a vehicle to engage with different cultures and audiences, bringing people across society together united by our sport.”
Diplomats have always used sports to strengthen relationships.
In the early 1970s, ping pong facilitated the end of three decades of discord and disharmony between the U.S. and China. While participating in a table tennis tournament in Japan, China unexpectedly invited American players for exhibition matches. Chinese players visited the U.S. the following year. So-called “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” was a means for the two countries to meet informally to work towards full diplomatic relations. Following positive public reception, the two countries issued the Shanghai Communiqué stating their intention to normalize diplomatic relations. By the decade’s end, they signed the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations with President Jimmy Carter.
Today, the U.S. Department of State, alongside entities like Meridian International Center, supports exchanges of athletes and sports worldwide. Like the Ping Pong Ambassadors before them, today’s sports diplomats seek collaboration.
On the eve of the 2018 Winter Olympics, Meridian celebrated the diverse world of sports with the Embassy of Japan in Washington. Then Ambassador to the U.S. from Japan, H.E. Kenichiro Sasae, welcomed guests from the diplomatic corps, U.S. officials, athletes, and members of the private sector, to his residence to discuss the invaluable role sports play in fostering cultural understanding and appreciation and its substantial economic impact and ability to create positive development in a community.
Times like this offer athletes a chance to take the global stage to unite around international social issues, allowing them to serve as diplomats of their own. They can increase cultural understanding by being a voice for change on timely issues, from inclusion, youth empowerment, gender equality, health and wellness, conflict resolution, entrepreneurship, and more.
In November 2022, as part of the U.S. Department of State -espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program – State’s premier exchange for women in sports – the NFL and Green Bay Packers served as a first-time mentor organization.
“The State Department is proud to team up with the NFL, which joins a number of professional and amateur sports organizations in supporting the United States’ sports diplomacy efforts,” Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, The Honorable Lee Satterfield, shared.
“In a world where many things can divide us, sports can bring us together. Sports diplomacy transcends borders, opens dialogues, and allows people around the world to experience American culture and values directly.”
Sports and its athletes must be embraced fully for their ability to support foreign policy and diplomacy outside of global events every four years. Through sports diplomacy, The U.S. and the world can strengthen their engagement, athletes can connect communities, and we can build stronger relationships based on shared values to inspire change and improve the quality of life across arenas.
Ambassador Stuart W. Holliday is the CEO of Meridian International Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit diplomacy center. He served as U.S. Ambassador for Special Political Affairs at the United Nations (2003-2005). Prior to serving at the UN, Ambassador Holliday was Assistant-Secretary of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. From 2000-2001, he was Special Assistant to the President and Associate Director of Presidential Personnel at the White House.