Tuesday, February 08, 2011

International Relations: Sport and Politics - Sometimes a Good Mix

Source: International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

The English outcry at FIFA's decision to award the World Cup to Russia and Qatar has obscured what might be a brilliant gesture of goodwill.

By Gerard DeGroot for ISN Insights

Nearly forty years ago, Glenn Cowan boarded a bus and changed the world. Cowan was an ordinary American teenager; his only distinguishing feature was his passion for ping-pong, at which he was world class. In April 1971, during the world championships in Japan, he mistakenly got on a bus meant for the Chinese team and immediately started talking to his idols. That put the Chinese in a difficult position. Since the communist revolution of 1949, there had been an embargo on civility between the US and China. The Americans pretended that the People's Republic did not exist, while the Chinese considered America the epitome of capitalist evil. In truth, both sides wanted a normalization of relations. Neither, however, could figure out how to pry open a jammed door. Then came Cowan.

When Zhuang Zedong, captain of the Chinese team, met Cowan's gesture with Confucian civility, not Maoist aloofness, that door swung open. "Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy", the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai later remarked. Within a week, the American team was touring China, followed everywhere by the world's press. That visit prompted Mao to invite President Richard Nixon to China. Full normalization was a long and rigorous process, but the most difficult problem was accidentally solved at the very beginning by Cowan. As Zhou remarked, "a ball bounced over the net and the whole world was shocked. The big globe was set in motion by a tiny globe - something inexplicable in physics but not impossible in politics."

Sport - a common language

Cowan's actions reveal the power of sport as a universal language. Sport allows ordinary people to engage with one another in an environment free from the antagonisms fostered by their governments. On neutral ground - the playing field or ping-pong table - they find a commonality. What Cowan and Zhuang discovered, and their respective countrymen enjoyed vicariously, was that the passions they shared outweighed the suspicions that divided them. Their governments then took guidance from that lesson.

Journalists and politicians are fond of the cliché that ' politics and sport do not mix'. But history suggests otherwise. Olympics games have always been political and became overtly so during the Cold War. European football closely mirrors political, religious and ethnic rivalries on the continent. But commentators too often concentrate on the negative ramifications when sport and politics intersect, ignoring the much more common benefits. Jackie Robinson, the first black player in baseball, forced Americans to reconsider their racial prejudice, for the simple reason that he was so good at the game. Cathy Freeman, star of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, had the same effect on her fellow Australians. The football match between Iran and the USA at the 1998 World Cup started as a clash between bitter adversaries, but soon became a lesson in reconciliation.

Corruption or Noble Purpose?

Sepp Blatter, president of football's governing body FIFA, seems to understand the power of sport to foster goodwill. On 10 December 2010, he announced that the 2018 World Cup would go to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar. England, who had presented what they thought was an unassailable bid for the 2018 Cup, reacted to Blatter's decision with unified outrage - and accusations of bribery. The English campaign had been based on a simple axiom: "We invented the game, we deserve the Cup; football should come home." FIFA, however, was not impressed with an argument based on simple entitlement. England came last in the voting.

"It's a fix," screamed The Sun, "A shame for England. A shame for football. And shame on FIFA." A somewhat more sober reporter in The Times said essentially the same thing: "The system of World Cup elections is abysmally corrupt. It is too small, making it easily manipulated, and it is too secret, protecting it from scrutiny." In the Independent, James Lawton simply concluded: "Damn the World Cup". Consensus of this sort has not been seen in England since the Second World War.

Granted, allegations of bribery have some foundation. Prior to the meeting in Zurich, two FIFA delegates were exposed for trying to sell their votes and FIFA is admittedly not known for its transparency. But the furor that followed Blatter's announcement eclipsed any measured assessment of what FIFA might have been trying to achieve. Allegations about nefarious practices smothered consideration of the idea that noble purpose could have been behind FIFA's decision.

"I really sense in some reactions a bit of the arrogance of the Western world of Christian background", Blatter later remarked. "Some simply can't bear it if others get a chance for a change. What can be wrong if we start football in regions where this sport demonstrates a potential which goes far beyond sport?" He was referring to the way sport can foster international harmony, a concept understood by Zhou, Nixon and Cowan. The French President Nicholas Sarkozy agrees: "I can't agree with people insisting competitions should continually take place in the same old countries, the same old continents. Sport is a global thing, it's Asia, it's Arab countries. And by sport we're going to open the world."

The former French international Marcel Desailly noticed what almost every English commentator missed. The FIFA decision, he feels, was about the healing power of sport: "It's about sharing the power of the World Cup." FIFA, he believes, has a unique opportunity to communicate directly with the people of a nation, rather than their governments. Through this, the people of Russia and Qatar have been told that they belong to a world community based on harmony, not antagonism. By the same token, the rest of the world has been given the opportunity (through watching or attending the World Cup) to discover the realities of Russia and Qatar beyond stereotypes. If football opens the world just a tiny bit, that should be cause for celebration.

As Zhou recognized, a big globe can be "set in motion by a tiny globe".

Last year, the footballing world went to South Africa for the World Cup. Both visitors and hosts were enriched by the experience. We will probably never know precisely what motivated the recent FIFA decision and if corruption indeed played a part. But now the focus should be on the impact of the decision. "Sport opens the mind", says Desailly. As the furor over the selection process demonstrates, England seems the exception to that axiom, but perhaps minds might open in - and toward - Russia and Qatar.

Dr Gerard DeGroot is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and author of The Bomb: A Life.