Take me out to the ball game: When sports diplomacy works
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Take me out to the ball game: When sports diplomacy works

DOZENS of South Korean basketball players took on their rivals to the North in a friendly meet in Pyongyang on Tuesday, as the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s favourite sport becomes the latest effort at athletic diplomacy between the neighbours.

Will a friendly game of b-ball solve the burgeoning nuclear crisis and put to bed a decades-long feud between these bitter enemies? No, of course not. But the two teams coming together on the court could be one small step on a long road to improved ties.

It’s a tried and tested method. The South Korean athletes who touched down in Pyongyang join a large group of “diplomats in tracksuits” that have attended sporting events as emissaries of their government.

Here are just a handful of successful – and not so successful – attempts to build bridges with ball games:

North and South Korea


Fans from North Korea cheer on the unified ice hockey team. Source: Reuters/Brian Snyder

The anticipated basketball game between the two Koreas is not their first attempt at sporting diplomacy this year.

Back in February, the North sent a high-level delegation and athletes to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The sporting cooperation sparked a thaw in diplomatic tensions and eventually led to the Inter-Korea summit and Kim’s meeting with US President Donald Trump in June.


Players of the Korean women’s ice hockey team acknowledge fans ahead of Sweden v Korea in Kwandong Hockey Centre, Gangneung, South Korea, February 12, 2018. Source: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

As part of the show of unity, North Korean ice hockey players joined the South’s team, unceremoniously booting out several South Korean players from their opportunity of a lifetime.

The team took an absolute beating, losing 8-0 to Switzerland. But what was a loss in the rink was a major win for diplomacy.

Ping-pong diplomacy


An American tennis table player trains with a Chinese tennis table player, Beijing, China April, 1971. Source: AFP

In what was considered a resounding success, the US sent a ping-pong team to China in 1971 as an icebreaker for talks.

The team didn’t stand a chance of beating the world champion Chinese team, but the competition played second fiddle to international relations and easing previously tense political ties.

Chinese players occasionally let the Americans win a game out of “friendship,” and to ensure there were no hard feelings and no upsets that could risk derailing the nice gesture.

The games set the stage for former-US President Richard Nixon’s breakthrough with the People’s Republic.


Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (centre front, right) with members of the American table tennis team. Ivor Montagu is to his right, Beijing, 1971. Source: AFP

Seven months later, Nixon made the trip to Beijing himself in what was viewed as one of the most important events in US postwar history.

“Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy,” said Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. For Nixon, it was “the week that changed the world.”

China 2008 Summer Olympics


Supporters at the China and Belgium at the Olympic Games soccer tournament August 10, 2008, Shenyang, China. Source: fstockfoto/Shutterstock

But it hasn’t all been hoops and hattricks for Chinese sporting diplomacy.

It hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics in a bid to raise its status and show the previously-closed-off China to the world.

While it was far from a complete disaster – it successfully showed to the world that China was open for business – but it also highlighted many of its shortcomings in terms of human rights and freedoms.

People who maybe were not aware of the human rights issues in China were made very aware after the government’s ban on the use of the internet and its heavy-handed attempt to control protests, such as those of Tibetan monks along the route of the Olympic torch.