Opinion

Trina Bolton
Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State

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27/05/2020 par Trina Bolton

The U.S. Department of State Stays the Course with Sports Diplomacy

In this age of COVID-19, the world faces unrivaled challenges from the individual to the international levels. The earthshattering impact that Coronavirus has on the sports landscape is emblematic of the crisis’s broader effects in the lives of all. Media attention to sport seems to focus on cancelled and postponed sporting events or the unfortunate cases of COVID-19 amongst famous athletes. But, another story emerges in every corner of the world as it relates to the sports community and COVID-19. This positive sports story is one of solidarity, innovative support, resilience, and connectivity between people regardless of geographic distance or sociocultural differences.

The U.S. Department of State’s sports diplomacy programming taps into these virtues of sport to bring together Americans and people from around the world with the goal of supporting a more stable and secure society. Recognizing that sports can play an important role in challenging times, our U.S. Department of State’s Sports Diplomacy Division takes this opportunity to present our work and highlight current priorities in the face of COVID-19.

While the United States leveraged the power of sports even before the ping pong diplomacy era, our Sports Diplomacy Division—formerly SportsUnited—was established in the wake of 9/11 as a means of reaching out to youth in the Middle East through soccer. Our scope has expanded to include all regions, thousands of participants, and the full spectrum of sports. Housed in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), our people-to-people sports exchanges open doors in hard-to-reach places and engage communities at the grassroots level.

We believe that if we can sweat it out together on the field or court, then we can see eye-to-eye with one another. When leveraged thoughtfully and strategically, we know that sports can be a platform to champion foreign policy priorities—inclusion, youth empowerment, gender equality, health & wellness, conflict resolution, and entrepreneurism.

While a government-led Ministry of Sport is responsible for sports in many countries, the United States has a different model with leagues, federations, collegiate sports, youth athletics, and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee driving the sports space. The U.S. Department of State’s Sports Diplomacy Division works with these American sports entities and partner non-profits to manage its core sports diplomacy programs. Our office often serves as the linchpin between these organizations and U.S. Embassies and Consulates around the world to manage four pillars: Sports Envoys, Sports Visitors, the International Sports Programming Initiative, and the Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP): the espnW GSMP to empower women and the Sport for Community GSMP on disability rights.

In coordination with other bureaus in the State Department, our Sports Diplomacy Division also contributes to initiatives around mega-sporting events, sports and human rights, and sports policy with the mission of advancing democratic values, leveling the playing field for marginalized people, and promoting respect for diversity. Disability rights emerge as a priority at the U.S. Department of State and our bureau strongly supports programs that spread global lessons of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Thirty years ago, the United States became the first country in the world to adopt this national civil rights legislation to ban discrimination against people with disabilities.

Since that time, the ADA—in tandem with other disability rights legislation—has led to the inclusion of people with disabilities in all areas of life—including sports. While we still have hurdles to overcome in the United States, we continue to seek change so that people with disabilities enjoy a life of dignity and inclusion.

As another priority theme, we emphasize that all of our ECA exchanges are a two-way street. American participants learn from the expertise of delegates and build professional and personal ties to these influential leaders overseas. We are enriched by new perspectives while developing friendships around the world and lasting partnerships. We look forward to celebrating the ADA’s anniversary this July—something that will not be defeated by COVID-19.

As the world grapples with COVID-19, we aim to remain engaged with our sports diplomacy community through our 2020 Global Sports Mentoring Program: Sport for Community virtual program, reunions online with former Global Sports Mentoring Program, our ADA campaign, and a series of live workouts with former Sports Envoys. We rise in solidarity with others in an effort to continue sharing democratic values through fitness, sports, and people-to-people relationships.

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