If you've ever played football or cricket in your neighbourhood sandlot, you have engaged in sports politics. There were decisions made about who would play and who wouldn't, which positions each player would take and what rules to play by.

You may have even heard something along the lines of "Well, it's my ball so I get to make the rules!". Or said, if the ball was yours. Such are the politics in football.

When it comes to amateur and professional sports politics, things are very different. Every athlete already knows their position and an outside party, a governing body, makes the rules. Depending on the sport and the type of event, judges or referees decide who wins or scores the highest. All the athletes have to do is perform.

Right? Wrong!

Regardless of the sport or the event showcasing it, every team and player brings with it its country's political goodwill. Their mere appearance at such events signal enormous political capital and their status as athletes gives each player a platform.

When we talk about sports and politics at the professional and competitive levels, we're talking about sports diplomacy. That represents the soft power bestowed on athletes to represent their nation, its political ethos and aims.

How Sports can influence politics:
- Boycotting sports events to protest a government's actions: the Olympics, World Championship events and even individual contests.
- To champion human rights issues: Muhammad Ali famously refused to fight in the Vietnam war; he also fought for civil rights in the US.
- To cool political tensions: Pakistani president Zia ul-Haq attended a cricket match in Jaipur in a time of hostile flare-ups between the two countries.
- Pingpong paved the way for cooling relations between China and the US at the height of Mao Zedong's rule.

As you can see from these few examples, politics in competitive/professional sports is nothing like the politics of your childhood footie matches.

Let's take a look at some of the most remarkable instances of politics in sports in recent history.

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The Christmas Truce

Picture a murky winter battlefield with troops entrenched on either side of the divide ominously known as no man's land. It's nearly Christmas; a few weeks before, the Pope had called for a cease-fire in this first year of war, so that the men may return to celebrate with their families.

The Christmas Truce was a marvellous example of sports diplomacy
The Christmas Truce in 1914, was a remarkable instance of sports diplomacy. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Harold B. Robson

Who pauses a war for a holiday celebration?

The soldiers on both sides did. Despite their commandants refusing to give them leave, these men marked the holiday with a unique and memorable celebration.

It started on Christmas Eve, with British and German troops singing Christmas carols. For their own solace - but loud enough to be heard across the divide? At each other, deliberately? To annoy one another? To prove their humanity to the other side? The reasons are lost to history but that's how this truce got underway.

The next morning, Germans left their trenches to deliver their Christmas greetings in person and offer gifts. Initially wary, the British feared a trap but soon realised their opponents weren't armed. They climbed out of their trenches with gifts of their own to share; plum puddings and cigarettes. They then united in song, praising the day together.

At some point, a football appeared. What else could they do than team up for a lively game or two?

That Christmas and its wonderfully weird celebration came just months into the First World War. Never since has there been a holiday truce, let alone so blatant and beautiful an example of sports diplomacy.

Dennis Rodman in North Korea

But there have been other weird examples; this is one of them.

In 2013, fantastically flamboyant NBA star Dennis Rodman hitched a ride to North Korea with the Harlem Globetrotters. Leader Kim, a passionate fan of the sport, couldn't resist the spectacle. The two meet and, upon his return to the US, Mr Rodman proclaimed Leader Kim a friend for life.

Hoops diplomacy is Dennis Rodman's political gambit
From his initial visit to North Korea, Dennis Rodman resolved to practise Hoops Diplomacy. Photo by Ryan Graybill on Unsplash

How he got the idea to nudge the US and The Hermit Kingdom closer together remains a mystery but that's the tack he took after that initial meeting.

He returned to that country four years later, presumably hoping to meet with Leader Kim again. Instead, he was hosted by the Minister of Sports, with whom he exchanged gifts and toured various basketball events and facilities. He made a return visit the following year, in 2018.

That was the year the two Koreas united to compete in the Olympics; a feat itself a sterling example of sports diplomacy. In fact, every Olympics is a universal expression of sports diplomacy.

Whether Dennis Rodman plans any further visits to North Korea is not known; COVID put the kibosh on... everything. Still, we have to admire what he calls his 'Hoops diplomacy'.

At least, in North Korea, he wouldn't have to worry about testing athletes for doping; there's a fairly stiff penalty for such, there.

Putin's Football

The former US president's 2018 meeting with Russian president Putin in Helsinki made headlines for more reasons than one; the main one being then-president Trump's concession that Russia has no reason to lie to him. Americans (and plenty of other heads of state) found that assertion outrageous but, for our purposes, it is only a footnote.

We're more concerned with the Russian leader giving him a football, saying "The ball is now in your court".

We can overlook the fact that football is played on a pitch; if the court reference were to have any weight, he would have to have given the US leader a tennis ball. And what did he mean by that phrase? What move did he want the American president to make?

That gift was no ordinary 'soccer' ball. It was an official World Cup ball, no doubt intended to highlight the fact that Russia had just finished hosting the FIFA World Cup games. Apparently, the significance was lost on the US president. With barely a thanks, he tossed it to his wife, who was sitting nearby, and later stated he would give it to his son.

We might interpret this instance as two bull-headed leaders unaware of the other's preferences.

Generally speaking, the US is not as keen on 'soccer', their name for the sport the rest of the world calls football. And, no matter how angry those fans may be at FIFA, they will nevertheless turn out for (or tune into) every game. More to the point, though: there has seldom been a US president less athletically inclined that #45. Thus, gifting him a football seems like the most gauche of faux-pas.

Likewise, the US ex-president could have at least made himself aware of the magnitude of the gift. Any country that gets to host the FIFA World Cup has to work hard to earn that privilege and doing so can take quite a bite out of the national budget. They get it all back and more once the event gets underway but, still.

This incident might be the best example of a sports diplomacy fail.

Rugby was used to unite the South African people
It's hard to imagine an aggressive sport like rugby could unite a people. Photo by Olga Guryanova on Unsplash

Nelson Mandela's Rugby Challenge

Rugby had been a favourite pastime for 90 years in South Africa, but only for the minority White population. In 1953, they claimed full political power over the entire country and instilled a cruel system of apartheid that would see the majority Black population relegated to the outskirts of the cities and shut out of every avenue to make a better life for themselves.

The global sports community noticed.

Starting in 1964, South African athletes were banned from Olympic competitions. Only White athletes received any funding or training and, in a diverse country, one race cannot be said to represent all. Besides, banning South Africa from Olympic participation registered the global sentiment toward the hateful regime.

The country's rugby team was likewise banned from World Cup events in 1987 and 1991.

The apartheid regime creaked to an end shortly after the second rugby World Cup event. In 1994, South Africa formed its first democratic government. Nelson Mandela, released from prison in 1990, took the helm with the self-imposed mission of fostering unity among his constituents.

He saw rugby as the perfect vehicle for the task. The South American population didn't. At least, not at first.

Mr Mandela incurred the wrath of the Black population, including his estranged wife, for seeming to cosy up to their White oppressors. He wasn't. He was working with them to turn the popular sport into the country's national sport. It took a lot of talking and appeasing. People didn't exactly come around but they did allow him the try.

Before the start of their face-off against arch-rival New Zealand, the revised South African national anthem blared throughout the stadium. It blended the traditional Afrikaans anthem with a liberation hymn from the anti-apartheid movement. As the final note sounded, President Mandela entered the arena; immediately, the mostly-White spectators were heard calling his name.

He had been working behind the scenes to establish relations with the rugby team leader and, later, the team, to gain their trust and partnership. Thus, rather than throwing the game because a Black man led the country, they played to win - and did.

The entire population was united in their joy at having beat their rivals. They didn't fall into each other's arms or accept each other right away; indeed, racial tensions exist today. However, they're nowhere near the level they were before that unifying rugby match.

Still, the sound of a White spectator body hailing their first Black president, in a country so divided by race for so long...

Now, discover female athletes' struggles for equality in sports.

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