SOAS University of London

Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy

Sport and Diplomacy

At least since the era of the ancient Olympic Games, sporting competition has assisted human societies in mediating estrangements, resolving conflict and sublimating competitive urges. Through sport, cities and states have represented themselves to, and communicated with foreign counterparts. In doing so, opposing sides – teams and the citizenry who support them – come to know one another, creating opportunities to build and sustain durable, ongoing and peaceful relationships. Such engagements with the ‘other’ simultaneously produce and reinforce each state and people’s own identity. These bilateral and multilateral processes of representation and communication constitute a form of diplomacy which has hitherto been under explored. It is now being addressed by the Diplomacy and International Studies (DIS) project team led by Dr J Simon Rofe (SOAS), Dr Geoff Pigman (Bennington College USA), and Dr Stuart Murray (Bond, Australia). 

In recent times, examples abound of sporting competition being employed to reduce tensions between states at odds with one another that thus lacked conventional channels of diplomatic relations Alongside some familiar examples – the ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ that opened communication and détente between the People’s Republic of China and the United States in the early 1970s, or the rôle of sport in ending Apartheid in South Africa, alongside more recent examples suggest that ‘sports-diplomacy’ is an increasingly necessary part of contemporary diplomatic practice. 

The project has broad aims to explore how sports and international sporting institutions function as non-state actors in international affairs, and examines their diplomatic entanglements. In this light the project asks a number of searching questions such as: 

  • How does international sport function in/as diplomacy? 
  • How should international sport function in/as diplomacy? 
  • What changes have affected the relationship between international sport and diplomacy? 
  • What effects have they had? 
  • What challenges do international sporting bodies face in achieving their objectives? 
  • How might they be reformed to do their jobs better? 

For further information about this project contact research lead Dr J Simon Rofe

Relevant Publications and Presentations 

  • "It is a squad game: Manchester United as a diplomatic non-state actor in international affairs”, Sport and Society, Vol. 17 No tbc Fall 2014. (latest articles from Sport and Society)
  • "Sport and Diplomacy: an Introduction"Sport and Society, Vol 17 No tbc Fall 2014.

Dr J Simon Rofe also teaches the course ‘Sport and Diplomacy: More than a Game’, available on all CISD Masters degrees.

Golden Games: Sport and Diplomacy Conference 2017