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When US Secretary of State Anthony J. Brinken visited the Middle East last fall, he wasn’t there just to talk about oil and gas, terrorism and the war in Ukraine.

He also went there and talked about football.

Before the US national team’s World Cup opener in Qatar, Brinken attends a football clinic with members of the American team and dozens of Qatari boys and girls, and finds the most useful of his diplomatic toolboxes. We talked about sports, one of the tools.

“We use sport as a way to connect people, a way to connect people to our country. Whenever I travel around the world, whatever our differences, sport brings us together. It binds, unites, binds,” he said.

To that end, the State Department’s Sports Diplomacy Program has sent surfers to Papaw New Guinea, brought ambassadors such as Shaquille O’Neal to Cuba, and organized sports camps attended by both Israelis and Palestinians. bottom. He has also brought hundreds of leaders from grassroots sports organizations around the world to the United States as part of his mentoring program aimed at encouraging and empowering leaders and expanding athletic opportunities for young athletes in their home countries. I was.

And it’s doing it all on a budget of about $6 million a year. So small that even in Washington’s bipartisan political climate, sports diplomacy is under contention, winning fans of the blue and red teams.

Young soccer player kicks the ball at a sport diplomatic event

A young soccer player kicks a ball at a sports diplomacy event hosted by Secretary of State Anthony J. Brinken in Doha, Qatar on November 21.

(Ron Psischa/State Department)

“Sports diplomacy is the State Department’s best-kept secret,” said Ashley Huffman, director of sports diplomacy for the past 15 months.

Part of the Department of Education and Culture, headed by Assistant Secretary of State Lee Satterfield, the program was formally established after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the concept of using sports to further diplomatic ends has been abandoned. It is nothing new. For example, President Nixon’s landmark visit to Beijing in 1972 led to the thawing of relations between the United States and China a year earlier with the exchange of table tennis players. otherwise it wouldn’t have happened.

And the United States isn’t the only country that believes in the power of sports. Australia, Spain and the United Kingdom all have government ministers and civil servants doing the job, while the European Union has an entire strategy dedicated to sports diplomacy.

“Sports is a universal language, right? Wherever you go, you can get the ball rolling, and it transcends differences,” said one of the featured speakers at the espnW: Women + Sports Summit in Ojai in November. said Huffman, 39, who was “The program, the exchange, brings us together through sport and taps into this shared and universal language,” she said.

However, sports exchanges are not always used conscientiously. Sometimes it hides a much more nefarious purpose.

Four days after the opening of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which was set up to promote peace through sport, Russia invaded Crimea. Nazi Germany held the 1936 Summer and Winter Olympics three years before its tanks entered Poland. Most recently, in his decade leading up to last year’s World Cup, Qatar hosted her more than 600 international sporting events. This includes the World Truck Championship, Formula One Grand Prix, bowling, squash, table tennis and equestrian international events. , using the sport to cover up the stains on the country’s terrible human rights record, which is what critics say Saudi Arabia is doing on her LIV golf tour.

The U.S. Sports Diplomacy Program works with embassies and consulates abroad to highlight strategic foreign policy goals where sports can be an excellent diplomatic tool. Suppose a surfing program in Barbados asks the embassy in Bridgetown for help. Diplomats there could settle on climate change as a relevant US government priority, and Huffman and her five staff members will reach out to the World Surf League, International Surfing Asun. Or any other group that can help put together a program that connects surfing and climate change.

Huffman, who played college basketball for Eastern Kentucky, said he’s been involved in virtually every sport, including skateboarding, breakdancing, mountaineering and baseball, but basketball and soccer are the most requested sports. US national team star Megan Rapinoe has the most.request players.

“One industry where the US is still considered a superpower is sports,” she said. “When we talk about American values, when we talk about liberty and justice and equality, if that’s really what we stand for, how do we see where freedom and equality are less Responsibility to share what we have been given, responsibility to equip and empower locals to change their communities if needed. do you mean it’s not in

“Where there is privilege, there is responsibility. And we have tremendous privilege in the United States.”

Ashleigh Huffman gets together with some people reaching out with open hands

Ashley Huffman, Director of Sports Diplomacy, second from right, gathers in the first class of the State Department’s espnW Global Sports Mentor Program.

(State Department)

Domestically, the Department of State is working with the Center for Sports, Peace and Society at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, which Huffman helped found, to implement the espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program. This five-week exchange program connects US mentors and sports organizations with leaders representing grassroots sports programs in more than 72 countries.

The latest class of 15, which arrived last fall, included delegates from Kosovo, Croatia, India, Zanzibar and Egypt.

“They are community experts. We don’t know the context, so we can’t just copy and paste what we think works there. Our role is to be there for them, to help them, to support them.” , said Carolyn Spellings, director of assessment, research and accountability at the Sports Center and clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Spellings, like Huffman, believes that sports are effective in more general diplomatic situations, such as dispute resolution, because they break down barriers and make negotiations and compromises easier.

“It humanizes the other person,” she said. “It’s like removing those labels you may have for others.”

Sports also increase the importance of rules that serve diplomacy.

“Society has rules that must be followed. Sports give us the opportunity to reach them,” said Spellings, who grew up playing basketball and soccer. “As competition increases, the consequences can be more serious than seven-year-old football. But the sport is unique in that respect.

“Sports is not a magic solution to everything. But starting to solve these problems could be helpful.”

Title IX is a unique American law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded schools and other educational programs. Although the legislation’s language was not limited to sports, it was in sports where its effects were most widely felt, creating opportunities for tens of millions of female athletes.

Sports diplomacy programs have tried to use it as an example of how small changes can have a big impact.

“We’ve taken these lessons from Title IX and applied them to Uganda, Brazil, and the Philippines to make a real difference,” said Huffman. “Sport is a low-cost, high-impact tool. It really changes people’s lives, and they can change the lives of others, their schools, their communities, and beyond.”

She speaks from experience. Basketball helped her pay for her education, and since earning her PhD, she has traveled to 30 countries to coach young girls, women and refugees, playing the Triangle her offense and halfcourt. Teaching lessons that go well beyond her press.

“If the field and athletes can unite, [or] A teammate can be our primary identity, and then all these other identities become sort of secondary, allowing us to actually have a conversation. I understand that it works, I know it works.”

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