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Sport and diplomacy, and the governance of sport discussed at LIDC seminar during London 2012 Olympic Games

With Euro 2012 still a fresh memory and the Olympic Games in full swing, the theme of sport and sporting events is on everyone’s mind. What is not widely discussed but of crucial importance, is the link between sport and international development.

To bridge this gap, LIDC hosted a seminar with prominent speakers from Bloomsbury Colleges representing different academic disciplines and sectors to share their work on the theme of sport and development, and to reflect on the role that sport can play in advancing development.

Dr. J Simon Rofe, the inaugural director of Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy Global Diplomacy Masters distance learning programme at SOAS, talked about his research work on  ‘Sport and Diplomacy’. Dr. Rofe made an important distinction between sport and diplomacy, which involves dialogue and negotiation, and sport and politics, which is more about power. Sport is in many ways like ‘war minus the shooting’, and in this sense it can be seen as an alternative to conflict, an outlet that channels strong emotions without bloodshed. Sport can be seen as a form of redemption for states, and it represents ‘soft power’, a means of yielding power without coercion. It is an important means of building communication and understanding between people and nations. Sporting and diplomatic bodies are often strikingly similar in structure and operating mechanism. A large international sporting event is very often preceded and/ or followed up by diplomatic efforts. Sport plays a tremendously important role in advancing human rights, through boycotts of authoritarian regime (e.g. South Africa during apartheid).

Sean Hamil, the Director of the Birkbeck Sports Centre, talked about ‘Regulation and governance of sport’, specifically on the example of football. He raised the question of how democratic sport governing bodies really are, considering their unrivalled power (‘soft power’ again) and how media-worthy major sporting events can be. In bodies such as the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), power is too concentrated, with transparency and accountability mechanisms being too weak. Sean Hamil reiterated the pivotal role that sport plays beyond physical education – it can act as a political, economic and diplomatic tool to exert influence. The problematic issue, however, is how undemocratic the governing bodies are. Better conditions need to be created for more transparency and accountability, alongside an improved mechanism to allow grassroots people to participate in sports.

A discussion followed, in which parallels were drawn between FIFA and the United Nations, both of which suffer from a democratic deficit. A range of issues linking sport and international development were raised, such as how poor people in developing countries are encouraged to pay for expensive licences to watch sporting events. On the flipside, the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 boosted Internet connectivity across the continent, increasing digital inclusion. The role of grassroots football was discussed: LIDC member colleges Institute of Education (IOE) and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) are currently running evaluations of projects that use football to convey HIV/ AIDS prevention messages to youth. An LIDC member working in Ghana talked about how football raises the aspirations of young people. Participation in football was also proven to increase the empowerment and social status of women. It was noted that the link between sport and diplomacy is similar to science and international development – both sport and science can be used to build links and increase understanding between nations. The controversial issue of linking pro-development messages to a major sporting event like the Olympic Games was raised – the problem of corporate sponsorship clouds the picture, as does the fact that poorest people rarely get a chance to succeed at sport.

Download the powerpoint presentation by Sean Hamil