SOAS University of London

Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy

Sport and Diplomacy: 'More than a Game'

Module Code:
Taught in:
Term 2

The module aims to develop a comprehensive understanding of how sports and international sporting institutions function as non-state actors in diplomacy since the end of the nineteenth century, through the twentieth and into the twenty-first.

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.

In more 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, the rôle of sport in ending Apartheid in South Africa, or the Olympic teams of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) marching together in the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Olympiad – more recent examples suggest that ‘sports-diplomacy’ is an increasingly necessary part of contemporary diplomatic practice. In other words, sporting fixtures – like diplomacy – may be regarded as a means of international discourse short of war.

Further, understanding sport’s capacity in the field of diplomacy challenges conventional state based approaches and sheds light upon a plethora of related issues: including international governance, international business, cultural diplomacy and public diplomacy. The role of governing bodies, such as the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, will be given particular attention as examples of major NGOs engaging in diplomacy.

This module is open to all Postgraduate Taught Students at SOAS. Lectures will take place during the day on Fridays.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

The module aims to give students:

  • an excellent ability to comprehend both conceptually and empirically the issues surrounding sport and diplomacy in international affairs, including the role of sport’s international governing bodies (International Olympic Committee, Federation International Football Association) as NGOs, sport’s role in the diplomacy of international business, as a vehicle for cultural diplomacy, and as a means of engaging in public diplomacy
  • comprehensive understanding of, and ability to critically review the relevant literature
  • aptitude in constructing and applying an appropriate analytical approach to issues relevant to the subject matter
  • capacity to source, integrate, analyse and summarise relevant research and data in the submission of assessments
  • the relevant skills to propose, debate and appraise feasible issues relevant to the subject


The module will be taught over 10 weeks with one two hour seminar per week.

Method of assessment

  • Assignment 1, 3500 Words, 85%
  • Assignment 2, 1500 Words, 15%

Suggested reading

  • Carter, N., (2006) The Football Manager: A History, London, Roultledge.
  • Scarlett Cornelissen (2008): Scripting the nation: sport, mega-events, foreign policy and state-building in post-apartheid South Africa , Sport in Society, 11:4, 481-493
  • Hill, J. (2006) Sport and the literary imagination: essays in history, literature and sport, Oxford: Peter Lang.
  • Hill, J. (2002) Sport, Leisure and Culture in Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Palgrave
  • Wolfram Manzenreiter (2008): Football diplomacy, post-colonialism and Japan's quest for normal state status, Sport in Society, 11:4, 414-428
  • Porter, D. and Smith, A. eds. (2004) Sport and national identity in the post-war world. London: Routledge
  • Tomlinson, A. and Young, C. (2010) Sport in History: Challenging the Communism Opinion, Journal of Sport History, 37 (1). pp. 5-17
  • Tomlinson, A (2008) Olympic Values, Beijing's Olympic Games and the Universal Market. In: Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the New China. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, Michigan, pp. 67-85.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules