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


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