Sports diplomacy holds a vital role in promoting peace and nurturing international relations. Throughout history, it has served as a means to enhance a nation’s global perception and foster better connections between countries.

Ancient Greece’s Olympics marked one of the earliest instances of sports diplomacy, uniting athletes from various city-states and fostering unity.

In contemporary times, sports diplomacy continues to bridge divides and facilitate dialogues between nations. An emblematic instance is ping-pong diplomacy between the United States and China in the 1970s. During a period of strained diplomatic ties, the US table tennis team’s visit to China catalyzed to ease tensions.

This case aptly demonstrated the potency of sports in dismantling barriers and initiating diplomatic dialogue. Beyond symbolism, sports diplomacy is a substantial force in international relations, fostering dialogue and forging lasting bonds. Both conventional and unconventional forms of sports diplomacy have effectively reconciled strained relations and opened doors for collaboration.

In both practical and academic domains, sports diplomacy has gained traction. Its literature underscores its role as an ice-breaker in defusing international tensions. It also highlights the power of sports in transcending political boundaries and bringing people together. As a crucial tool in international relations, sports diplomacy shapes nations’ images and fosters amicable relationships. It transcends high-profile events like the Olympics, extending to smaller initiatives like youth athlete exchanges and friendly matches.

 

Modern sports diplomacy extends beyond state-led efforts. Acknowledgment of non-state actors, such as sports organizations, athletes, and fans, is growing. Their roles in shaping international relations through actions and interactions are recognized. This evolved form of sports diplomacy engages a broader audience, encompassing diverse stakeholders who may not fit traditional diplomatic roles.

Though promising, sports diplomacy remains a relatively underexplored field in diplomatic studies. Its practice, however, holds substantial potential in our globally interconnected world. Taekwondo, a traditional Korean martial art, has emerged as a potent tool for sports diplomacy, exemplified by the joint performance of North and South Korean athletes at the 2018 Winter Olympics. This united display showcased Taekwondo’s capacity to bridge divides and advance peace. Beyond symbolism, Taekwondo diplomacy fosters direct interactions, nurturing understanding among individuals from diverse nations.

This form of engagement carries significant weight in diplomacy, facilitating people-to-people connections that conventional diplomacy often struggles to achieve. World Taekwondo (WT) has witnessed substantial growth, encompassing 209 member nations, outnumbering the United Nations’ (UN) 193 countries. The addition of two non-member UN observer states, the Holy See and the State of Palestine, further underscores its significance. It trails closely behind FIFA, the soccer governing body, regarding member nations.

This expansion positions WT as a prominent Olympic sports federation, distinguished as the top IOC International Federation in 2016. WT’s initiatives contribute to international relations, such as the Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation (THF) and the Taekwondo Peace Corps (TPC). The TPC, founded in 2008 under the theme “World Peace through the Great Taekwondo Spirit,” comprises volunteers embodying Korea’s “Taekwondo Spirit.”

This dedicated group leverages Taekwondo values to tirelessly promote peace worldwide. Operating in challenging contexts, the TPC unites determined individuals of various genders, bridging global peace divides. Deployed to both developed and developing nations, the TPC employs Taekwondo as a vehicle for peace.

This initiative transcends gender, ethnicity, and religion, exemplifying its success by establishing the World Taekwondo Peace Corps Foundation in 2009. Founded in 2015, the Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation (THF) created the Azraq Taekwondo Academy in Jordan. This platform facilitates training, demonstrations, and competitions for students. The THF’s Taekwondo Humanitarian Center, established in 2018, offers children a space for residence, sports, and education.

The Azraq refugee camp, constructed in 2014 near Azraq, Jordan, caters to Syrian Civil War refugees, managed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in collaboration with Jordan’s government. With over 35,000 refugees by 2019, the camp’s impact is considerable.

The THF’s initiatives have effectively woven Taekwondo, Korean language, and culture into the lives of displaced individuals. By fostering self-confidence and skills among the stateless, THF’s impact extends beyond symbolism. The foundation’s achievements materialized at the 2017 WT World Championships, where refugees competed under a unified banner, demonstrating unity and inclusivity potential.

In the Pakistani context, Afghan refugees actively participated in the COAS Pakistan Open Taekwondo Championships 2021 and Combaxx 4th Asian Open Taekwondo Championships 2021. Taekwondo’s power as a diplomatic tool was evident in the joint performance by North and South Korean Taekwondo athletes at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Beyond symbolism, Taekwondo facilitated direct interactions, fostering understanding and camaraderie. Such exchanges carry a profound diplomatic impact, facilitating connections often elusive through traditional diplomatic means.

In conclusion, sports diplomacy emerges as a potent force that transcends geographical, political, and cultural boundaries. It has consistently demonstrated its ability to break down barriers and initiate constructive dialogues.

This form of diplomacy is not limited to high-profile events but encompasses many initiatives, including exchange programs and grassroots-level interactions. Sports diplomacy has evolved beyond the traditional realm of state-led efforts, acknowledging the role of non-state actors like sports organizations, athletes, and fans. Their contributions expand the reach of sports diplomacy, enabling connections that resonate with people from all walks of life.

World Taekwondo (WT) is a prime example of the potential of sports diplomacy. With its expansive membership and international initiatives like the Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation (THF) and the Taekwondo Peace Corps (TPC), WT showcases how traditional martial art can contribute to peace, understanding, and global cooperation. The success of THF’s Azraq Taekwondo Academy and its impact on refugee camps worldwide demonstrates the transformative power of sports, language, and culture in empowering displaced individuals.

As we navigate an increasingly interconnected world, the value of sports diplomacy becomes even more apparent. Its capacity to create people-to-people connections and foster mutual respect is unparalleled.

 

*The author is the Coach of the Pakistan National Taekwondo Team. He is a seasoned sport professional with over 25 years of experience in the field and has also represented Pakistan internationally in several competitions.  

**The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Diplomatic Insight. The organization neither endorses nor assumes any responsibility for the content of this article.

Previous articleCrisis and Cooperation: The Black Sea Grain Solution
Next articleAfghanistan ventures to attract investments from Turkey
TDI
The Diplomatic Insight, Pakistan's premier Public Diplomacy Magazine, has been at the forefront of promoting Peace Through Informed Dialogue since its inception in 2009. With both print and electronic versions, this decade-old media house is offering research, analysis, and public diplomacy outreach to clients in Pakistan and across the globe. TDI is now offering Amazon Kindle Self Publishing Services to diplomats, ambassadors, political leaders, academicians, and other civil society leaders to be the next best-seller authors. With access to 11 global markets and the option to translate your work into 11 languages, you can reach up to 300 million readers worldwide and unlock your personal and country branding.