Concise and very condensed encyclopedia of sport in international relations

Kristian Gerner
Dept. of History, Lund University

Stuart Murray
Sports Diplomacy: Origins, Theory and Practice
261 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2018 (Routledge New Diplomacy Studies)
ISBN 978-0-8153-5690-5

Stuart Murray’s book on sports as diplomacy is an attempt to create a theoretically based interdisciplinary new sub-discipline in international history. Murray’s ambitious project is proof that we have come full circle and are back on square one. History writing encompasses everything and anything. The need felt by Murray for another sub-discipline in historical science is a consequence of the quest to make sports history a science in a positivist sense. He quotes repeatedly Sir Karl Popper’s observation that as knowledge of a subject increases, the unknown becomes ever greater. Accordingly, Murray has set himself the task to summarize all known history of diplomacy and all known history of sports from Sumer in 3000 BCE to Russia in 2018 and proceeds to demonstrate that the two are interrelated. The argument is that whereas the essence of sports is competition and the essence of diplomacy mitigation, the exercise of sports can become transfigured and result in peaceful coexistence between groups and national states.

What you see depends on where you stand. Stuart Murray is an Associate Professor at Bond University in Australia and a Fellow of the Academy of Sport at Edinburgh University in Scotland. The author observes that Australia is “a country where sport is often touted as a religion.” The Australian government has pioneered contemporary sports diplomacy on a grand scale: “[…] in June 2015, Australia became the first country in the world to officially codify every aspect of their formidable international sporting footprint into a comprehensive, whole-of-government Sports Diplomacy Strategy” (5).

The point of departure for Murray’s research project is to describe how that which originated in Mesopotamia five thousand years ago reached its apogee in contemporary Australia. Thus the jump from 21ststcentury CE Australia to 3000 BCE Sumer. The research questions are: why do states “embed” sports in its diplomacy, how does sports diplomacy relate to foreign policy goals, and how can this practice be effectively measured?

Murray has written his book with the explicit goal to make historians of diplomacy knowledgeable in sports history and vice versa. Chapter 1 tells the anthropology and history of diplomacy “from the cave to the conference table,” and chapter 2 informs the reader of the essence of sports with ancient Greece and Rome as the formative instance. At the very end of the book, under the heading “Utopia: recommendations for theory and practice” the author argues that a “bright, sustainable future” for sports diplomacy presupposes “that more physical links should be established between theorist and practitioners from both the realms of sport and diplomacy.” It does not come as a surprise that in September 2017 the first Australia-China Sports Diplomacy Summit took place. All twenty-two panels discussed “the power of sport to act as a bridge facilitating connectivity” (257).

The conceptual framework ofSports Diplomacy divides the research object into four subcategories: traditional sports diplomacy, sports diplomacy, the specialized diplomacy of NSSAs, and sports anti-diplomacy. The acronym stands for Non-State Sporting Actors. In the context of the subject matter of the book, anti-diplomacy is an oxymoron. This is because the ultimate reason for diplomacy, according to Murray, is to mitigate conflict. The basic tenor of the book is to demonstrate how sports has and can be used as a means to meet this end. The author obviously wants to show also how sports events can be used to instigate conflicts between groups and nation states. “Anti-diplomacy” turns out to be non-military warfare.

In Murray’s conceptual world, ‘diplomacy’ stands out as the crucial concept. It is difficult to define in terms of both denotation and connotation. It is obvious that it is about actors that confront one another and compete or collaborate and who attempt to promote basic interests and secure existential goals. Diplomacy is the alternative to warfare.

A necessary precondition for this historical event was that the American table-tennis player Glenn Gowan during a tournament in Japan in April 1971 mistakenly entered the Chinese team bus – and became greeted in a friendly manner by the Chinese player Zhuang Zedong.

Sports is easier to define. It denotes physical actions, ranging from subtle manipulation of limbs to exercise of brute force and violence. It connotes competition, victory and defeat. Sport is also an alternative to warfare. Murray is not clear about a fine difference between diplomacy and sports: in diplomacy, action precedes arena – the latter range from standing embassies and regular international institutions to scheduled meetings of individuals – whereas in sports an established arena (which may be a pitch as well as ordinary streets) is the necessary precondition for any activity at all. The diplomacy dimension comes into play either with the competition or with acts that are carried out in the arena but that do not have anything “sporty” about them.

The reader of Sports Diplomacy gets an overview of a number of sports events that have had an impact on political relations between states and/or served as a means of public diplomacy. The Olympic Games, World Championships in different sports and matches between national teams are traditional arenas of sports diplomacy. Murray takes cognizance of all this. However, his main contribution to the burgeoning research literature on sports, diplomacy and conflict is his analysis of the role of NSSAs as international actors and of the human rights dimension of sports.

Sports Diplomacy demonstrates (1) that sports is a salient feature of international relations and (2) that sports diplomacy basically is public and – in principle – transparent. Sportswomen and -men as well as spectators in arenas, in front of TV and PC screens can let partisan and even nationalist emotions run high without – in principle – engaging in violent, lethal fights. This is the argument to regard sports diplomacy as a beneficial dimension in international relations. However, Stuart Murray devotes the last two chapters of his book to the dark side of international sport, “anti-diplomacy”. He writes about hooliganism and he shows how bargaining about the location of major events, such as the World Cup in football, can be cases of serious corruption. He does not fail to mention the well-known football war between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969 in the qualification round to the World Championship in 1970.

Among the plethora of Murray’s empirical cases two stand out as especially noteworthy. Neither of them had to do with negotiations, with diplomacy in the usual sense. Both concerned acts by individual sportsmen who did not act as state actors. The first example is the story of the origin of the “Ping-Pong” diplomacy in 1971 and the normalization of US-China diplomatic relations in 1972. A necessary precondition for this historical event was that the American table-tennis player Glenn Gowan during a tournament in Japan in April 1971 mistakenly entered the Chinese team bus – and became greeted in a friendly manner by the Chinese player Zhuang Zedong. The rest is history. One notes that this was not a case of any pre-meditated diplomatic move. It was just a coincidental friendly encounter between two table-tennis players from two inimical states.

The second example is the impressive follow-up 48 years later of Tommy Smith’s and John Carlos’s closed fists demonstration at the victory ceremony after the 400 meters final in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. In 2016 after two African Americans had been shot dead by (white) police – Murray uses the noun “murder” – Colin Kaepernick repeated this protest against racism and discrimination of African Americans. He refused to stand for the National Anthem of the United States. Many other American footballers followed his example, both black and white, as Murray underlines.

Stuart Murray’s history of sports diplomacy is cumbersome reading because it is really a not only concise but also very condensed encyclopedia of its subject matter. However, it is not merely a descriptive text. The author has a message that goes beyond mere sports and mere diplomacy. The message is that the sports arena can be used as a vehicle to promote human rights. Thus in a comment on Kaepernick and other athletes who have acted in his manner, Murray presents what amounts to his credo:

They are brave, strong, fearless, genuine, articulate and resolute young men and women who realise that, in the twenty-first century, sport must take on a role beyond the pitch. They are not so different from the heroes from Greek mythology, taking on often impossible tasks but doing so with grace, justice, humility and the wisdom that comes from failure (175).

In his book, Stuart Murray observes repeatedly that politics and sports have belonged together from immemorial times and do so strongly today. Focusing on the role of sports in human relations, he has written a world history of conflict and contact between individuals, groups and states.

Copyright © Kristian Gerner 2019

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