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Rowing Through Troubled Waters: Sports Diplomacy in the Middle East and South Asia

Rowing Through Troubled Waters: Sports Diplomacy in the Middle East and South Asia

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Sports diplomacy is a common form of public diplomacy, and has long been used to bridge tense relations between international powers. Even when countries have cool relations, sports teams can be utilized to connect to foreign publics. For example, Iranian athletes wrestled Americans this May in a bilateral effort to save wrestling as an Olympic sport.

The State Department’s Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs says sports diplomacy “…uses the universal passion for sports as a way to transcend linguistic and sociocultural differences and bring people together.” Afghanistan has a particular relationship with its athletes, taking extreme pride in its Olympic and world champions. This overarching love of sports helps those from divergent communities come together.

A country known for its instability and violence, Afghanistan is the last place many would expect to find a rowing team. American Matt Trevithick, however, sees the situation differently, and intends to build a team in the mountainous nation. A Boston University rowing alumnus, Trevithick has high hopes for the nascent Afghan program, an example of sports diplomacy.

Lake Dukan in Iraq.

Lake Dukan in Iraq.

Trevithick has experience in encouraging fledgling programs in war-torn countries. He previously helped Bruce Smith from Community Rowing, Inc. establish a rowing program in Lake Dukan, Iraq. The Afghan project parallels the beginning of the Iraqi endeavor, which points to a challenging but positive future.

Smith went to Iraq in 2009 at the invitation of the Iraqi Olympic Committee. Iraq’s athletes have long suffered under intense pressure; under Hussein’s rule, many coaches and competitors were tortured in retribution for poor performances. Smith and Trevithick worked to make the rowing program an opportunity to create inter-personal relationships, domestically and abroad.

Sports diplomacy can be instigated by both private and public parties. Trevithick is proud of the independent nature of the rowing program, stating, “There’s no American government money involved. It’s just U.S. and European rowers reaching out to rowers in Iraq.” Trevithick and Smith solicited materials from rowers around the world, increasing international interaction between these individuals.

When employed in conjunction with other diplomatic efforts, sports diplomacy can achieve results. One such example is ping pong diplomacy, where the exchange of American and Chinese ping pong teams signaled a thaw of U.S.-Chinese relations. This thaw eventually saw the visit of Richard Nixon to China.

Difficulties also accompany sports diplomacy, especially as organizers work to keep interactions constructive and positive. Sports competitions have a reputation of inciting violence, on winning and losing teams, and of course between teams. To help reduce this possibility, organizers of international games and exchanges should often consider surrounding events with other interactions that emphasize international diplomatic relations.

The rowing programs in Iraq and Afghanistan involve private citizens and government officials from both countries, and private individuals from the U.S. The sports diplomacy initiative has shown its worth in strengthening relationships between the Iraqi and Afghan governments and their citizens, and in surmounting ethnic divides. The staying power is yet to be proven, but Trevithick is hopeful. He stated, “Pakistan and Iran have rowing programs, and I’ve assured the Afghans that we will start beating them very shortly.”

To read more about Trevithick’s efforts, click here.

Katrina Trost is a Master of Political Science candidate at Boston University with a focus on the Middle East, democratic development and security.


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