Eric Stubben is a mechanical engineering sophomore and Mustang News conservative columnist. | Ian Billings/Mustang News

Eric Stubben
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Eric Stubben is a mechanical engineering sophomore and Mustang News conservative columnist. These views do not necessarily reflect the opinion or editorial coverage of Mustang News.

I’m a firm believer that the most important life lessons can be learned through sports. Sports teach us commitment, teamwork, perseverance and countless other lessons that can be applied to various aspects of life. For this reason, I’m a strong supporter of “sports diplomacy,” the use of sports to combat cultural differences and bring people of various nationalities together.

Using sports to bring people together is nothing new. During the Cold War, the United States and the USSR set up a series of track and field meets in Palo Alto, Calif. that were credited with further engaging productive talks between the two nations. Overseas, in South Africa, sports were a driving force in progressing civil rights and ending the Apartheid. And of course, as made famous by Forrest Gump, Henry Kissinger’s prized “pingpong diplomacy” featured a series of pingpong matches between the United States and China, which eased some tension and allowed for talks and progress between the two countries.

In the United States today, we have a strong sports diplomacy program known as SportsUnited, run through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). They write on their webpage, “Sports diplomacy uses the universal passion for sports as a way to transcend linguistic and sociocultural differences and bring people together.”

SportsUnited is split into two separate factions: sports envoys and sports visitors. Sports envoys are American coaches and athletes that are sent abroad to lead sports clinics in foreign countries. Naturally, sports visitors are young, “non-elite” (as the program describes them) athletes who come to America for two-week sports programs. The programs range from men’s and women’s basketball to figure skating, snowboarding and even disability sports. Most importantly, SportsUnited has gotten elite, transcendent athletes to act as ambassadors. Retired baseball players Ken Griffey, Jr. and Cal Ripken, Jr. along with figure skater Michelle Kwan are all listed as “American Public Diplomacy Envoys” used for sports diplomacy.

While sports diplomacy is important to embolden current relations, its main success is in bolstering future international relations. Sports are generally more popular with young people, and with 43 percent of the world’s population under 25 years old, sports diplomacy has a huge target demographic. We use sports diplomacy politically for the same reason the NBA sends teams to play in Japan, the NFL plays games in London and MLB opened its season in Australia: new, unique sports attract young people. During childhood, we look for new, exciting things to fill the void of adventure in our lives. For many, sports fill that void and provide unique excitement.

Culturally, sports are incredibly important and create bonds between fans and athletes of varying cultures. Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Board of Commissioners member Barry Sanders writes that “the volume of international sports travel by the participants makes it the largest multilateral global exchange program apart from general tourism.” Young fans and athletes traveling to amateur events often get their first taste of international culture through sports, a key to developing early cultural sense.

It’s also important to note that sports can affect younger generations outside of politics and cross-cultural expansion. Though sports should never be relied on as a career, baseball often gives young Central and South Americans an opportunity to come to America and build a career, while other sports have offered increasing international opportunities as well.

Recently, sports diplomacy has been stronger than ever. Both George H.W. and George W. Bush invited foreign leaders to attend their beloved Texas Rangers baseball games, and President Barack Obama invited British Prime Minister David Cameron to a basketball game in Ohio. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of sports exchanges during her time in office, “When I go to other countries around the world and we talk about what kind of exchanges that people are looking for, very often a leader will say, ‘How about a sports exchange?’” Perhaps President Obama and North Korean leader Kim Jung Un’s mutual love of basketball, especially the Chicago Bulls, can spark some conversation between the two. Well … Maybe I went too far there.

Whether we choose to believe it or not, sports are an integral part of domestic and international society. We have events such as the Olympics and World Cup that bring nations together, simultaneously uniting citizens within each nation. If we can harness the power sports provide and use it to propel foreign relations, sports diplomacy can open many doors.

In a time when politics seem to impede everything, sports connect people on a personal level without political, economic and governmental ties. Sports diplomacy works by stepping over cultural boundaries and around political lines. That’s what makes sports diplomacy successful, and that is why its ventures have been so successful in the past and must continue in the future.

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