Geopolitical Sporting Events

A Global History of Sports and Diplomacy: The Top 20 Moments When Sports and Politics Collided on the World Stage

You can learn a lot about the world through sports.

Sports impact society, especially as they have the power to unite and divide. In addition to hosting the world’s best athletes, the Olympics also played host to Cold War holdouts, anti-Apartheid boycotts, and symbolic protests projected onto the world stage. No wonder a few Americans used the National Anthem to demonstrate their message during sporting events.

Whether it’s Jackie Robinson crossing the color line in baseball or Billie Jean King defeating the opposing sex in a well-watched tennis battle, sports have always been a leading front in the fight for civil and political rights. Today, we see Greek fans in Milwaukee, Wisconsin sticking around to give Giannis Antetokounmpo an encore ovation after a basketball game. And Slovenian fans pack a stadium in Miami to cheer on opposing players named Goran Dragić and Luka Dončić. Presidents of Iran tweet about basketball in Michigan. And the Boston Bruins hockey team even travels to China to play for the all world to see.

Sports don’t just reflect culture and economics. They also enable power and politics.

Here are the most inspiring examples (in historical order) of geopolitics and diplomacy in sports:

New Zealand Rugby initiates the Haka

What Happened: The haka, performed by the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, is one of the most famous pregame challenges in the sports world.

Why It’s Significant: There isn’t another pre-game ritual in sports quite like the haka, which pays homage to the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, the Maori. The formation dance was used to physically and mentally prepare Maori warriors for battle and the All Blacks now utilize it to get themselves ready for rugby battles on the pitch. The haka is also used as a sign of community and solidarity, like the students who performed haka to pay tribute to classmates killed during the Christchurch shooting.

WWI Christmas Truce “football”

What Happened: While tending to the dead and wounded one Christmas night during WWI, opposing teams played footie rather than kill each other.

Why It’s Significant: Before tanks and airplanes changed how wars were fought, WWI had opposing trenches with a “No Man’s Land” in between. In December of 1914, German and British soldiers agreed to a “truce” in order to leave their trenches and care for the dead and wounded. As they crossed enemy lines, soldiers began bartering and singing Christmas carols, leading to a few games quick games of “footie” soccer. Even though these moments were fleeting, it’s ironic how much the current American football field, with its opposing end zones and goal of conquering territory, can remind fans of trench warfare and a better way to battle.

Jesse Owens ruins Hitler’s Olympics

What Happened: African-American Jesse Owens won four gold medals at Hitler’s Berlin Games, disproving the Nazi theory of Aryan racial superiority.

Why It’s Significant: Before WWII officially kicked off, Adolf Hitler hoped to use the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany as a show of German force and Nazi racial superiority. His plans were thwarted on the field and in the global media as African-American Jesse Owens dominated the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay, and the long jump. Owens also managed to break or equal nine Olympic records and set three world records, destroying the Olympics’ racial hierarchy and humiliating Hitler. While Germany still won many medals and Owens’ wins didn’t budge the policies of American racism, his heroism leading up to WWII helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement after WWII.

Hungary’s Water Polo Win

What Happened: Hungary won a violent water polo match against the U.S.S.R. after learning that an anti-Soviet uprising was put down in Budapest, their capital city.

Why It’s Significant: After being told about thousands of deaths and arrests following the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the Hungarian water polo team devised a strategic plan to provoke their occupying opponents to fight. As blood filled the water from kicking and punching on both sides, five players were ejected and the Hungarians comfortably won the game 4–0 on their way to winning gold.

African-Americans Send a Message from Mexico City

What Happened: Two American track and field athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who finished first and third in the 200 meter sprint race, performed the Black Power salute on the victory stand.

Why It’s Significant: Civil Rights took center stage in Mexico City during the 1968 Olympics as Tommie Smith and John Carlos created one of the most enduring images in the history of sports and protest. Cheered by civil rights marchers in the U.S. and demonized by the press and their national team, Smith and Carlos were sent home immediately after their act of defiance. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the sports community began honoring their salute as a global moment of courage.

“Ping Pong Diplomacy”

What Happened: The U.S. and China organized table tennis matches, leading to U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Mao Zedong.

Why It’s Significant: After WWII and Mao Zedong’s communist revolution in 1949, Chinese relations with the U.S. became “cold” as China’s economy grew closer to the Soviet Union’s. China vs. the U.S. got especially heated during the Korean War, but by 1971 both nations were looking for open dialogue with one another as China’s alliance with the Soviet Union soured. The U.S. and China eventually opened secret communications, but the first breakthrough came from a nice public encounter between Chinese and American ping pong players at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan. China’s best player shook an American ping-ponger’s hand and spoke to him through an interpreter as photographers caught the whole incident on film. You’ll probably even recall the movie “Forrest Gump” commemorating this fantastic “ping-pong diplomacy” program.

“Rumble in the Jungle” brings Muhammed Ali to the World

What Happened: 60,000 fans in Africa, plus another billion worldwide via television, watched underdog Muhammad Ali beat undefeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman in an eighth round knockout victory.

Why It’s Significant: Seven years before this international boxing match, Muhammed Ali was stripped of his title, sentenced to prison, and suspended from boxing for refusing to comply with the Vietnam War draft. Martin Luther King Jr. later quoted Ali in support of his position: “As Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all — black and brown and poor — victims of the same system of oppression.” A year later, the “Thrilla in Manilla” became the most-hyped rubber match of all time, pitting Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier. Ali also won this international event and both matches cemented his famous “Rope-a-Dope” strategy in history. It’s no wonder that Muhammed Ali became the face of American boxing around the world and another famous boxer from the Philippines, Manny Pacquiao, became a Senator there.

“Miracle on Ice”

What Happened: A bunch of amateur hockey players from the U.S. defeated the four-time defending gold medalist professionals from the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

Why It’s Significant: The Soviet team had significant experience in international play while the U.S. team was the youngest team in the tournament. Just see the game’s final moment for yourself. The U.S. went on to clinch the gold medal by beating Finland in the final game. Sports Illustrated named the “Miracle on Ice” the top sports moment of the 20th century.

Air Jordans Go Global

What Happened: After Michael Jordan made “The Shot” to win an important Game 5 during the Playoffs, Nike released the Air Jordan IV to the global market and added director Spike Lee to ads after he featured the shoe in his movie Do The Right Thing.

Why It’s Significant: When the NBA banned shoes that didn’t have enough white on them, Air Jordans became legendary as they were synonymous with Michael Jordan’s individualism. His Nike shoes unleashed generations looking for their voice. With high price points and even higher demand, Air Jordans inadvertently caused riots, robberies, and even murder. While they were initially made in Italy, thousands of workers who made them in places like Indonesia, Vietnam, and China went on strike over wage violations. No other basketball shoe revolutionized global business and sports marketing like the Air Jordans. Without them, Klay Thompson couldn’t sign one of the most lucrative shoe deals in history with Chinese shoe brand Ante, aiming to become the Air Jordan of Asian sneakers.

Grateful Dead sponsors Lithuanian basketball

What Happened: Dubbed “the other dream team,” the Lithuania national basketball team won a bronze medal at the Olympics after the Grateful Dead, motivated by their story, funded their trip to the Olympics.

Why It’s Significant: The same year the American “Dream Team” dominated the 1992 Olympics, the Lithuanian national team became the second most marketable team on the basketball court. Just look at those uniforms! After the fall of the Soviet Union, Lithuania re-established its independence and entered the Olympics as an independent country. NBA players Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis couldn’t afford everything the team needed to get to the Olympics, so the Grateful Dead stepped in and wrote a check to the team after a backstage meetup with Bill Walton. After 50 years of Soviet oppression, the Lithuanian basketball team (and their outstanding tie-died uniforms) became a symbol of hope and liberation.

Rugby World Cup unites South Africa

What Happened: Hosted and won by South Africa, this Rugby World Cup was the first to have every match held in same country and the first major sporting event to take place following the end of Apartheid.

Why It’s Significant: Apartheid (“separateness”) in South Africa was a political system of racial segregation that existed for decades until institutionally coming to an end in the early 1990s under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. The 1995 Rugby World Cup was also the first in which South Africa was allowed to compete, as it had been previously banned from the international game because of Apartheid. During the championship game, South Africa defeated New Zealand in extra time. After the game, Nelson Mandela, the country’s first black head of state, presented the trophy to white South African captain François Pienaar. The film “Invictus” fittingly captures their relationship and its effect on the nation and the world.

Iran celebrates a World Cup win

What Happened: Amid ongoing tensions, Iran beat the U.S. in the “mother of all games” at the World Cup.

Why It’s Significant: The Iranian Revolution ousted the pro-American Shah in 1979 and saw fifty-two American citizens held hostage for 444 days. Relations nearly two decades later were just as hostile. But both sides traded flowers and gifts before this game and showed each other respect. Iran’s 2–1 victory sparked wild celebrations in Iran that threatened to destabilise the government. Iranians openly danced and drank alcohol in political acts of defiance. Women took off their headscarves. “We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years,” said U.S. defender Jeff Agoos after the game. This win paved the way for a subsequent and successful series of volleyball games between the two countries in the early 2000s.

President George W. Bush throws out the First Pitch

What Happened: During the 2001 World Series after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch to game three, the first game of the series to be played in New York City.

Why It’s Significant: Many U.S. presidents participated in the American tradition of throwing out the first pitch, but George W. Bush’s at Yankee Stadium following 9/11 became the most famous. It reminded Americans to “play ball” again. After Major League Baseball resumed play following the attacks, American sports saw some of its most iconic moments. At Shea Stadium, Mike Piazza hit a walk-off homerun in the Mets’ first home game. And Boston Red Sox fans proudly sang “New York, New York” at a few games. President Bush’s simple pitch urged the nation to move forward with strength and resiliency, like New York’s first responders at Ground Zero.

India’s Cricket team tours Pakistan

What Happened: After decades of conflict, India’s cricket team went on a test match tour to neighboring Pakistan and thousands of Indian fans travelled along to watch.

Why It’s Significant: The birder rivalry between India and Pakistan in one of the most significant in the world, dating back to 1947 when Pakistan was carved out from India on religious lines by the British after WWII. The partition led to horrific mass killings, genocide, and rioting in different parts of India and Pakistan. To this day, they fight over the Kashmir border region. Cricket matches were used as an ice-breaker for this rivalry and it’s no wonder that the current Prime Minister of Pakistan is former-cricketer, Imran Khan, who said that the tour “transcends sports, it is much more than cricket, it is passion.”

Armenia and Turkey sit together at the World Cup

What Happened: The leaders of Armenia and Turkey held talks before their World Cup qualifier match and sat together at the game to repair relations between the two neighboring countries, who did not have diplomatic ties.

Why It’s Significant: Divided over the legacy of early 20th-century genocide, Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, attended a soccer match after accepting an historic invitation from his Armenian counterpart, Serge Sarkisian. It was the first time they met at a senior level. Shortly after the game, the two nations established diplomatic ties and ended a century of animosity. The President of Armenia wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Just as the people of China and the United States shared enthusiasm for ping-pong… the people of Armenia and Turkey are united in their love of football.” He went on to say that “whatever our differences, there are certain cultural, humanitarian and sports links that our people share, even with a closed border.”

Soccer and the Arab Spring

What Happened: 2011 was a revolutionary year for many Arab nations and soccer supporters played a pivotal role in those uprisings.

Why It’s Significant: During the “Arab Spring,” a series of anti-authoritarian government uprisings across the Middle East, repressive regimes closed soccer stadiums in an effort to prevent radical communities from gathering and coordinating in the stands. Shutting down one of the only outlets for releasing the pent-up anger of disenfranchised young men had the opposite effect in Egypt as its two largest football fan clubs, Al Ahli and Zamalek, came together and turned their aggression toward the government. Cairo’s ultra soccer fans then agreed to an unprecedented truce with those expressing their opposition to the autocrats in power. Because radical soccers fans around the world have a long history of street conflict and ethnic cleansing, recruiting these fans to fight for a revolution wasn’t hard. Soccer stadiums around the world have consistently been battlegrounds for issues such as women’s rights, national rights, ethnic rights, and religious rights.

Dennis Rodman conducts “basketball diplomacy”

What Happened: NBA star Dennis Rodman got together with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (a big fan of the 1990s Chicago Bulls) to watch an exhibition game between the U.S. and North Korea in Pyongyang.

Why It’s Significant: While Dennis Rodman was more well-known for being a basketball bad boy than for being a diplomat, he’s credited with the release of an American prisoner who was detained after crossing the North Korean border in 2012. Rodman has been shuttled back and forth a few times since, not only watching basketball with and signing “Happy Birthday” to North Korea’s leader, but also more recently hand-delivering a copy of President Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” to North Korea’s Sports Minister.

Refugee Olympic Team created

What Happened: The International Olympic Committee created the “Refugee Olympic Team” to enable athletes from the world’s 68.5 million displaced people to compete in the Olympics and draw attention to their plight.

Why It’s Significant: More people have been forced to leave their homes by conflict than at any time since World War II. The civil war in Syria has been one of the largest drivers of this crisis. Nearly a year after the announcement, athletes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Syria competed alongside other teams in Brazil. This Refugee team inspired the world with the strength of their human spirit and drew attention to the global refugee crisis.

North and South Korea play together during the Olympics

What Happened: The Olympic delegations from both North and South Korea participated in the opening and closing ceremonies together and played in unity under the Korean Unification Flag.

Why It’s Significant: North and South Korea first marched as one team at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia. The 2018 Winter Olympics saw additional unification as host country South Korea partnered with the North to compete under team name “Korea” in ice hockey. This is especially significant because there was never a formal treaty to end the Korean War, only a ceasefire agreed to in 1953. The Korean War officially continues to this day, except at these Olympics.

China Promotes Soccer as part of the “Chinese Dream”

What Happened: Becoming a soccer power is a big part of President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream, a vision of China’s future as a respected world power.

Why It’s Significant: The United States isn’t the only country exporting power and politics through the games it plays. China’s government recently instituted a national program to boost their soccer status around the world. President Xi believes sport has great significance, saying that “doing physical exercise helps keep us in good shape and improve our work efficiency.” (He sounds a lot like Theodore Roosevelt talking about football.) The world might have seen this coming as they watched the 2008 Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympics. And guess who’s sponsoring Kenya’s only ice hockey team, vying for a spot in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing? It’s not Russia. It’s the world’s 5th largest Internet company, Alibaba, founded in China.

Superpowers win hearts and minds through sports. While sports diplomacy may never become a formalized field of study, competing with others through organized sports enables more than a few playful moments to see the world differently.

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