College of Education and Human Development

Sport Diplomacy at the Winter Olympics

February 12, 2018

The 2018 Winter Olympics have officially begun in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and top athletes from around the world are currently competing in 15 events over more than two weeks.

But there’s more than just sport at this worldwide mega event—there’s also diplomacy.

“Even though the purpose [of the Olympics] is sports,” says Craig Esherick, Sport Management academic program coordinator at Mason’s College of Education and Human Development, “it forces people together. And that’s a good thing. That’s a really good thing.”

According to Esherick, coaches and athletes aren’t diplomats, but they can be the first line of diplomacy. At the Olympics, they’ll naturally interact with contemporaries from other countries, learning about the ways they approach their chosen sport, their training, and more.

This Olympics is particularly promising as a venue for diplomacy. It takes place in South Korea, not far from the country’s border with the notoriously isolationist North Korea. As a potentially positive gesture, North Korea has sent a delegation of athletes to the games, which is training and competing alongside South Korean athletes as a unified Korea.

“They are taking advantage of an opportunity that sport presents,” says Bob Baker, director of the college’s Sport, Recreation, and Tourism Division, about North Korea. “It’s a world stage.”

Baker and Esherick are no strangers to the importance of the Olympic games—or other world-connecting large sporting events, such as the World Cup. Together they edited the 2017 book, Case Studies in Sport Diplomacy, a collection of essays that discusses the power of using sport as the first line of diplomatic discussions.

Over the course of 12 chapters, the book’s authors examine everything from Russian President Vladimir Putin and the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games to South Sudan’s search for an identity—and acceptance—through the power of sport.

Esherick’s interest in the field of sport diplomacy—a field that had been touched upon by international relations scholars, but not one that had its own academic “bible”—began back in 1986, when he became an assistant coach and scout for the 1998 U.S. men’s national basketball team.

The job required him to travel often, and he met coaches and players around the world. It’s not uncommon in these sorts of situations, according to Baker, for stereotypes to be shattered, understanding increased, and hostility decreased. Athletes and coaches with similar athletic touchstones meet and talk shop. The political backdrop fades. In a small way, there is understanding between countries that might otherwise be at odds.

“That’s the great thing about sports,” says Esherick, who was the head basketball coach for Georgetown University from 1999 to 2004. “It forces you as a team member, as a coach, to communicate with the people you’re going to participate with.”

“Sport can start the conversation, and it certainly has,” he says.

For North and South Korea, it’s impossible to know just yet if the Olympics will spark more serious diplomatic talks. It appears that North Korea is attempting to show, through the shared delegation with its neighbor, that “they’re not as bad as people think,” according to Esherick. And they’re showing it while the world is watching.

“It’s a very visible stage, and it will be watched very closely,” Baker says. “It’s a baby step toward, ‘can we engage more? Can we engage in other ways?’ Or is it a one-off? And we won’t know that at this point. But at least a step has been taken.”

Also watching these interactions—and having interactions with international colleagues—will be a cadre of Mason students. About 15 students in the Sport Management; Hospitality, Tourism, and Events Management; and Recreation Management programs are spending a semester studying abroad in South Korea. They’ll be attending the Olympics and working at the Paralympic Games, which will be held in Pyeongchang in March. They’ll also take a couple of classes at Mason’s Songdo campus in South Korea.

They’ll immerse themselves in the games, living in the athletes’ village during the Paralympics and working with volunteers from around the world.

The Mason program is sport diplomacy in microcosm. Throughout the Olympics, athletes, coaches, students, and volunteers on the ground will serve as the first line of diplomacy. Every country will have these interactions. But the interactions between the Koreas will be watched most closely.

“The country has been split since the Korean war,” Esherick says. “There are families that have been split. There’s stress that both countries have been dealing with since then.”

“It will be interesting to watch what the legacy of this becomes,” Baker says.