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Presidents, Piercings and Ping-Pong Politics

by on February 12, 2014

Many brush off Dennis Rodman’s involvement in diplomatic processes within North Korea as purely comical or even a desperate cry for attention by an ageing sports personality and a state apparently not in touch with what’s ‘hot or not’, so to speak.rodamn 2
It is difficult to not acknowledge that sports diplomacy has done much for diplomacy in the past, the late-great former South African president Nelson Mandela went as far as to say, “Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers”. [1]

In essence, two debates exist here. Firstly whether or not celebrities, specifically athletes, morally and ethically have a place in diplomacy, and secondly, whether or not the use of sports personalities is effective in achieving significant influence or change.

Sports diplomacy and celebrity diplomacy are separated by only acute intricacies, primarily because the outcome of a game or end result is not a forgone conclusion, this creates an aura of pureness and quality which crosses borders and effectively makes sports a medium that is identifiable and trusted globally. With that being said, once sports and diplomacy are mixed, what essentially happens is the pure, non-political virtues of sports are compromised. Though this opinion may be cynicism at work, it has to be considered that a sports personality could be another tool utilised by those in power under a guise of a concerned citizen when in actuality they’re just an agenda spokesperson.

Richard Nixon and Ping-Pong

Legion_Whats_Behind_Ping_Pong_Diplomacy0027bExamples of diplomacy and sports merging are not limited to more recent times, President Nixon proved it to be a useful tool in international diplomacy in the 1970s. During the 31st World Table Tennis Championships, the term ‘Ping-Pong Diplomacy’ was coined as following President Nixon’s promotion of the American Ping-Pong team to meet with officials from Mao Zedong’s China. Being the national sport of China is probably why this avenue was chosen by both sides, often touting the slogan “Friendship First, Competition Second”. On April 10, 1971, the US team and accompanying journalists became the first American delegation to set foot in the Chinese capital since 1949, a mere two months following this, Nixon met with members of the Zedong administration during a trip to China which was undoubtedly an important step in formally normalising relations between the two nations. The legacy of “Ping-Pong democracy” and its lasting effect on international relations between the two states was honoured in 2008 by a three day Ping-Pong event where players of both 1971 teams participated outside the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in California.[2] [3]

The case of Vitali Klitschko.

There are however, instances where the utilisation of sports personalities in diplomacy have proved ineffective, so far at least. Current 3 time boxing world champion and a national treasure in his native Ukraine, Vitali Klitschko was set to have a seamless transition into mainstream politics in Ukraine and recently became leader of the opposition political party. In 2005, following his retirement he campaigned (unsuccessfully) for the position of Mayor of Kiev, hence It remains to be seen if his presence in Ukraine’s political scene has spurred diplomatic shifts. Following the recent refusal by Ukraine government to sign an association agreement with the EU, Vitali took to the streets on behalf of the UDAR in a bid to calm subsequent protests, even being attacked by a man and his fire extinguisher. Whether or not Vitali will be able to tackle the corruption in the Ukrainian system remains to be seen, more important is that he has made claims that he is serious about his political participation which “is a battle and (he doesn’t) plan to give up easily”. [4]

The procurement of a boxing Hall of Famer by an opposition political party is soft power in all its glory, this is a dangerous road for traditional diplomacy because naturally, emphasis will shift from politics to the celebrity who blurs lines and the complexity of democratic processes, which are consequently undermined. It’s important to establish whether or not the celebrity in question is becoming personally involved, for their own gain, or politically involved in a bid for righteousness? The cynics among us will point towards cultural imperialism and the maintenance of unequal relationships between people and government. In the end, is there any real harm done? certainly it seems at face value that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages for most as there are obvious other, more prevalent barriers to democracy and public diplomacy than just a perceived celebrity smokescreen.









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  1. this may be the best blog i’ve ever read

  2. This is an interesting and nicely illustrated blog post, which sets up the most pressing questions concerning celebrity involvement in political affairs. I love the title of the piece and Rodman’s visit to North Korea is certainly one of the most colourful examples. However, my understanding of this episode is that he acted independently of the State Department and White House of the United States – indeed, Obama seemed to find him an annoyance – so I not sure this a case of a celebrity being manipulated and exploited by the powers that be.

    Moreover, to what extent is Vitali a celebrity diplomat? He played a role within the domestic politics of Ukraine in recent months, but does that constitute diplomacy?

    Finally, there are a number of odd turns of phrase (e.g., ‘separated by only acute intricacies’), which cloud rather than clarify your position.

    Please work on improving or revising the above before including this work in your portfolio for submission.

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