I was walking up 17th street in DC on my way to the metro when I noticed a giant looming figure in front of me. It was my boss, Richard Solomon, then-President of the United States Institute of Peace. At the time, I was a research assistant working on Iran-related content at the Institute so our paths had not yet crossed within the work place. I slowed and then hastened my pace, unsure of whether I could strike up a conversation. This was, after all, the man who had lived through the kind of case study I dreamt of: using sport to bring people together. Dr. Solomon assisted in the famous ‘Ping-Pong diplomacy’ that paved an opening in US-Sino relations in the 1970s after approximately two decades of stalemate. Catching up to him, all I could muster was a smile – to which he reciprocated with one of his own. A missed opportunity to learn from a walking textbook; one who is now recently deceased.
George Mason University (GMU) wants to limit such missed opportunities by providing spaces for students and interested parties to study and learn more about the usage of sport as it relates to addressing conflict. The University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and Sport Management program have created a ‘Sport and Conflict Resolution’ minor and a semester-long Sport Diplomacy class that will be offered in the fall of this year. The aim of these programs is to deepen both the understandings and skills of those who wish to create positive changes at multiple levels of society through sport, like the kind of positive change that Dr. Solomon had helped initiate in 1972.
The widely referred to Ping-Pong diplomacy, one case study that is sure to be analyzed at GMU, took place during a chance happening between two members of the Chinese and American teams at a table-tennis championship. US player Glenn Cowan missed his team bus and rode with the Chinese team instead. During this ride, Zhuang Zedong, the three-time world table tennis champion, introduced himself to Cowan and presented him with a silk-screen portrait of the Huangshan Mountains. Upon returning to the United States, another American player who had competed in the same championship stressed to reporters the similarities between the Chinese and American people:
“…People are just like us. They are real, they're genuine, they got feeling. I made friends, I made genuine friends, you see. The country is similar to America, but still very different… “
The Cowan-Zedong incident was captured and disseminated by the media and led to a few state-level invitations, one of which Dr. Solomon played a critical role - escorting the Chinese table-tennis team during their visit to the United States a year later in 1972. The trip was seen as an important step in trust-building, a key factor in the resolution process of any conflict.
Since the Ping-Pong diplomacy case, the notion that sport could be used as a vehicle to address social and political conflicts has grown in breadth. In today’s era, sport is not only fueled by the power of public media which gives it a megaphone effect, but it is also increasingly leveraged by entities such as governments, non-governmental and international organizations, and academic institutions for its ability to promote tolerance and respect. In the past decade, the United Nations (UN) has solidified its support of sport for development purposes, pointing to its
“contributions to the empowerment of women and of young people, individuals and communities as well as to health, education and social inclusion objectives.”
In August 2013, the UN proclaimed today - April 6 - as the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace to mark the potential and usage of sport in such capacities.
Athletes serve as a unique piece to how sport can be leveraged to highlight grievances and also to help promote positive change. We have only to look at recent notable examples led by present-day athletes Colin Kaepernick, Stephen Curry, Misty Copeland, and Ibtihaj Muhammad to see this. The bonding that can occur between athletes themselves, however, is another equally unique component, and something to which I can attest. Traveling around the world to represent the US in Traditional Karate, the only language my competitors and I spoke was that of the martial arts. It was the glue that brought us together in the same space and our experiences there had ultimately initiated a desire to want to learn more about the “Other”. If anything, those experiences gave me the chance to observe how accurately my own worldview represented the “Other”. Oftentimes, I found that my fellow competitors were just as human as I; we were separated only by how our respective societies had shaped our perceptions.
What I would have asked Dr. Solomon that day on the sidewalk is how he was able to foster trust between the Chinese and Americans through sport, and if this kind of trust is replicable, for example, between Americans and Iranians. In a new book, Case Studies in Sport Diplomacy, edited by Michael Sam, Steven Jackson, and GMU’s own Craig Esherick and Robert Baker, the unique interactions of wrestlers from two historically estranged nations – the US and Iran – is explored in one of its chapters. In particular, this section of the book discusses how such connections can be supported and leveraged at the grassroots level to shift contentious attitudes toward one of cooperation.
Programs and resources that analyze non-traditional methods to improve relations, open dialogue, and bridge cultural divides are more necessary today than they were in 1972, when the rules of the game and of society were completely different.
Increasing interactions that reshape perceptions and patterns can be a lengthy process and hefty feat to take on, but the alternative is that we allow the barrage of conflict with which we are faced today to persist and govern. Sport presents a unique option in bringing people together, and when leveraged appropriately, it can form the beginnings of strong bonds upon which other substantive topics of interests can be discussed. I know this to be true, Dr. Solomon knew it, and George Mason University, with its diverse knowledge base and prime location near the nation’s capital is poised to dig deeper for more answers.
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