Sport is strategically positioned to lead the charge in the realignment of international relations’ soft power tactics during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, says the writer. File picture: IANS
Sport is strategically positioned to lead the charge in the realignment of international relations’ soft power tactics during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, says the writer. File picture: IANS

OPINION: Athletes have more influence than politicians and can help fight severity of Covid-19

Time of article published Aug 5, 2020

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By Mpho Tsedu

The global outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted world normalcy in almost all fraternities of life. In its destructive trail sports, in general, were not spared its wrath.

From either cancellation or postponement of major tournaments in tennis, football, track racing, contact sports and the Olympics, the impact of coronavirus has been immensely felt on the sporting fields.

With this disruption of the norm emerged new opportunities for innovative methods to adapt to a new normal.

Speaking about the influence of sport in 2013, Nelson Mandela said: “Sport has the power to change the world”, adding that it had the power to inspire and unite people in a way that little else did. “Sport can create hope where once there was only despair,” Mandela said.

These words by Madiba, reintroduce the critical role that sports diplomacy can play in the middle of a pandemic-ridden world.

Amid a plethora of interpretations defining sports diplomacy in his article Sports diplomacy: South Africa and Fifa 2010, Bishnupriya Padhi opts for a definition associated with Peppard and Riordan which describes it as “the whole range of international contacts and competitions that have implications for the overall relations between the nations concerned”.

So in this era of Covid-19, what role can sport play to improve relations among states?

To answer this question, it is imperative to revisit the role sport has played in international relations prior to the coronavirus outbreak.

This way, proven facts will ratify possible roles for sports diplomacy in this epoch and beyond.

Speaking just over a year ago, Kumara Mallimaratchi, High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in South Africa, said at a meeting with chief executive of Cricket South Africa Thabang Moroe: “Our dedication to and fascination with cricket can open new opportunities in advancing economic benefits and strengthen the bilateral relations between our two nations”.

They envisaged promoting tourism destinations in both countries in between cricket matches’ telecasts and during intervals. This is a typical example of the use of diplomacy by an international sporting body wherein international sport is engaged by governments as a tool of diplomacy.

As non-state actors, such international sporting bodies have mastered the effective use of track-two diplomacy.

South Africa’s stance is that sports diplomacy is an extension of cultural diplomacy through which it can externalise its domestic policies.

While the 1995 Rugby World Cup was touted as a unifier for a country with a past of institutionalised, racially-divisive policy, the 1996 African Cup of Nations and the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup were planned as continental projects with the same objective.

As Sifiso Ndlovu noted: “This Pan-Africanist trend continued and was underscored by the official slogan of the 2010 Soccer World Cup Ke-Nako! Celebrate Africa’s humanity.”

The Africa agenda foreign policy spearheaded by President Thabo Mbeki was aimed at the unification and development of the African continent. It often played itself out through sport.

In 2013, South Africa had to step in to host the Afcon tournament after Libya was no longer able to do so.

Even the 2014 African Nations Championship (Chan) had to be hosted in South Africa owing to the political instability in Libya. On the two occasions, South Africa was a willing ‘last-minute’ option host.

All this after South Africa had supported the 2002 Afcon in Mali through a financial shot in the arm and seconded experienced soccer administrators to ensure the success of the continental soccer spectacle.

In the academic realm, South Africa was practising what Joseph Nye termed “soft power”, which is characterised by political values, culture and foreign policy.

Given its undisputed critical role in the sphere of diplomacy, sport, like other disciplines of human activity with national economic interests, must adapt its modus operandi to sustain its relevance in international relations.

Sport is strategically positioned to lead the charge in the realignment of international relations’ soft power tactics during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

The fight against the severity of the coronavirus can be led by sports personalities, who command more influence than politicians.

Soccer giants, Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs football clubs, have already led by example when they publicly declared their support to the combating of Covid-19 and committed their brands to public diplomacy efforts against the pandemic.

Springbok captain Siya Kolisi also recently partnered with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and President Cyril Ramaphosa as they marked ­Mandela Day with activities in Soweto.

Overall, the existence of Covid-19 has not negatively affected the abilities of non-state actors, especially in the sports arena, to exercise their roles as influencers and agents of international relations.

Tsedu is the chief executive of the South African Institute of Foreign Affairs.

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