by James Viray
"Peace on earth, good will to men," is a common refrain heard during this time of the year. With recent U.S. presidential election results highlighting significant political divisions domestically and campaign and transition foreign policy statements raising concerns internationally, those words may be more than just lyrics and represent a sincere hope for many this season.
We've written before about the transcendence of sports and its ability to unify people, communities and nations. In times when changing foreign policy positions may strain relationships with capitals across the globe, sports diplomacy may be a more necessary and effective tool than ever.
While relationships between governments may break down over defense, trade, climate change or human rights, sports can often provide the common ground to maintain, revive or even progress dialogue. We only need to look back a few months to a baseball stadium in Havana, Cuba, as an example. Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays played the Cuban national team in an exhibition that found U.S. President Barack Obama taking in the game next to his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro. That may have been the modern-day iteration of the Babe Ruth-led team of baseball all-stars' goodwill tour of Japan in 1934. The "ping-pong diplomacy" exchanges between the U.S. and China were widely recognized as helping to pave the way for lifting the embargo against Communist China and President Richard Nixon's 1972 historic visit to the country. And reviving the exchange begun with Iran through U.S. Wrestling's 2007 trip to the country may be necessary if the new U.S. Administration's policies result in a deterioration of U.S.-Iranian relations.
Sports diplomacy could even reap economic benefits for the U.S. as American professional sports leagues look to expand internationally. In addition to the Cuban exhibition game, MLB had a Spring Training game in Mexico City; NBA teams traveled to Madrid, Barcelona, Shanghai and Beijing for pre-season games; and the NFL played regular season games in London and Mexico City. As U.S. sports teams and their players travel abroad, they have the opportunity to connect with the fans of the game. With the diversity of players' backgrounds across different sports, sports diplomacy allows those fans to get to know various aspects of American culture. And the use of sports by many U.S. athletes to overcome challenges like conflict and violence, discrimination and broken families during their youth can provide common experiences to build connections with young fans.
In this holiday and political season when many may be wishing for peace on earth, it may be sports rather than presents and athletes instead of politicians who can spread good will around the world.