By Ken Reed
Sport can be a great instrument of peace. Throughout history, there are many examples of positive social change resulting from sport diplomacy.
For one, sport, through Richard Nixon’s “Ping Pong Diplomacy,” helped open the lines of communication between the United States and China in the 1970’s (no cracks about ping pong not being a real sport; if you watch elite international table tennis you’ll quickly understand that it is).
Unfortunately, another American president, Jimmy Carter, made the decision to use sport not as an instrument of peace but as a weapon of discord during the Cold War. Carter boycotted the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics and the Soviet Union returned the favor four years later at the Los Angeles Olympics.
As veteran columnist Steve Kelley writes, this summer’s World University Games, which are taking place in Kazan, Russia through July 17th, are the first time Team USA has competed in a multi-sport event on Russian soil since Carter’s infamous boycott.
“For the U.S. and Russia, this is a new beginning, a chance to replace the fading memories of a faulty decision made more than three decades ago, with fresh competitions and better memories,” writes Kelley.
The World University Games are a big deal in Russia, and other parts of the world for that matter. These Games feature terrific Olympic-style competition for true student-athletes. Yet, for whatever reason, the United States has never embraced them. While there are more than 400 Americans competing at these Games, the United States also chose not to send a men’s or women’s soccer team. Moreover, there’s no American gymnastics team in Russia, and only a partial track and field squad. Historically, television coverage of the World University Games in the U.S. has been very limited. ESPNU and ESPN3 will have 40 or so hours of coverage this year.
Meanwhile, the Russian government and the country’s citizens have fully embraced the Games. The Opening Ceremonies drew 50,000 people, including President Vladimir Putin.
Mike McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia has been impressed. He sees the potential for good that sport in general, and these World University Games in particular, represent.
“I can tell you, as the ambassador, but also as a former student, it (sports) is something we share in common with the Russians,” says McFaul. “An appreciation of athletes and success in all forms of sport.”
Unfortunately, the actions of the United States government as a whole, along with those of the national governing bodies (NGBs) for sports in this country, would communicate that we, as a country, don’t fully appreciate the potential of sport as an instrument of peace and positive social change. For some NGBs, the World University Games are completely ignored. Other NGBs send teams to these Games woefully undersized and underfunded. That’s too bad, because the World University Games are — in terms of international goodwill — what the Olympics were intended to be, but haven’t been, for a long time. The Olympic ideal is to bring the world’s athletes together in the “spirit of unity, peace, communications and cooperation.” Instead, the modern Olympics are too often about crass commercialization, unabashed greed, and autocratic control of the participating athletes.
Nevertheless, getting American and Russian athletes –especially athletes who are college students, as is the case at the World University Games — together to compete in the spirit of true sports diplomacy is a positive thing. Given the sour taste Carter’s boycott of the Moscow Olympics left in virtually everyone’s mouth, it’s good to see Team USA competing against the Russians in Kazan.
“What’s great about (sports) is, we (Russia and the United States) have our ups and downs in terms of diplomacy,” says McFaul. “There’s good times. There’s bad times. … Right now we’re in a bit of a difficult time over issues like Syria. But what unites Russians and Americans is really two things, culture and sports.”
How true. The best thing about sports is simply this: Sports can connect people like nothing else. They can build and nurture positive relationships.
And for that reason alone, I’m glad to see young American athletes competing at the World University Games against young athletes from Russia and other countries around the world.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #32 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Prolific Author Joe Posnanski Joins the Show – Posnanski is one of America’s best sportswriters and has twice been named the best sports columnist in America by the Associated Press Sports Editors. We chat about his new book, “Why We Love Baseball,” his new Substack newsletter called Joe Blogs, and we cover topics including how baseball treats its fans, MLB’s numerous rule changes this past season, how the sport can become more fan-friendly, the greatness of Negro Leagues champion Buck O’Neil, and much more.
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Episode #31 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Foul Ball Safety Is Still an Important Issue at Ballparks – Our guests are Jordan Skopp, founder of FoulBallSafety.com and Greg Wilkowski, a Chicago based attorney. We discuss the historical problem of foul balls injuring fans and why some teams are still hesitant to put up protective netting in some minor league and college baseball parks.
Episode #30 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The State of College Athletics with Dr. David Ridpath: Problems and Potential Solutions – Ridpath is a sports administration professor at Ohio University and a member of The Drake Group, a college sports reform think tank.
Episode #29 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Honorable Tom McMillen Visits League of Fans’ Sports Forum – McMillen is a former All-American basketball player, Olympian, Rhodes Scholar and U.S. Congressman. We discuss the state of college athletics today.
Episode #28 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Chat With Mano Watsa, a Leading Basketball and Life Educator – Watsa is President of PGC Basketball, the largest education basketball camp in the world. We discuss problems in youth sports today.
Episode #27 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Kids’ Sports: How We Can Take Back the Game and Restore Quality Family Time In the Process – Linda Flanagan is author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports and Why It Matters.” We discuss how commercialized and professionalized youth sports are hurting kids and their families.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- Reed Appears on Ralph Nader Radio Hour League of Fans’ sports policy director, Ken Reed, Ralph Nader and the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner discussed a variety of sports issues on Nader’s radio show as well as Reed’s updated book, How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. Reed's book was released in paperback in February, and has a new introduction and several updated sections.
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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