The (true) sporting spirit.
In China, it is often said that true friendship between nations has political, economic and cultural aspects. We are often guilty in Australia of a strong focus on economic and political interaction. An enduring bi-lateral relationship is more than a series of transactions. A creative middle power should not rely on arms and trade alone to influence regional and international affairs. When Premier Zhou Enlai looked for a viable, subtle path through which China could rejoin the world in 1971, he understood the role that sport could play. Zhou’s strategy to bring the world to China, and China into the world, has been remembered as ‘ping pong diplomacy’. Opportunities for breakthrough diplomacy are rare, but the capacity of sport to drive greater intercultural understanding and bring people together is limitless. Sport plays an important role in our national culture. Several nations, such as France, see their language as an instrument of cultural diplomacy. China uses the arts as its preferred medium for soft diplomacy. For many Australians, sport is our art, our passion and our combat. But is it too combative to play a role in bringing people closer together? In his essay published in 1945, ‘The Sporting Spirit’, George Orwell asserted that sport is “bound up with hatred jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.” If this were so, sport is not an instrument able to enhance understanding between different peoples. Like art, sport can both imitate and inform life. Sport in Australia can bring out the best and the worst in our national character. It can explore the most brutish, arrogant corners of the Australian mind – but can also express our sense of camaraderie, equality and commitment to excellence. In his essay, Orwell also expressed his belief that the “modern cult of sport … is bound up with the rise of nationalism”. In this moment, when nationalism is once again on the march across Europe and Asia, it is worth reflecting on how sport informs our worldview in these modern times. Orwell was referring to the 1936 Olympics. As a spectator at the 2012 London Olympics, with its excessive displays of nationalistic fervour, it was difficult not to share Orwell’s conclusion that sport is “itself merely another effect of the causes that have produced nationalism”. Orwell, however, specifically referred to “big-scale sport”. As a tool of intercultural exchange, sport is perhaps most effective at a sub-national level, grassroots level, through projects and exchanges that provide natural, easy opportunities for intercultural engagement. It has been successfully leveraged in the past to bring diverse peoples together. Following the end of the Vietnam War, for example, diverse ethnic groups fled Cambodia and Laos to refugee camps in Thailand. In the camps, serious tensions borne out of historic enmities were tempered through a series of organised volleyball tournaments. People from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, divided by historic grievances and cultural differences, were drawn together through a shared passion. Correctly calibrated, sport does not threaten to diminish the cultural or linguistic integrity of the smaller nation or less assertive cultures, unlike other forms of exchange such as trade, media, language and entertainment. Sport is a vehicle for intercultural exchange which can bring mutual benefit through a shared passion and a common, unspoken language. For Australia to maximise its potential to drive intercultural exchange in our region, we should perhaps look to sports that have a greater popular resonance in Asia such as volleyball, table tennis, badminton, and swimming. These non-contact sports are also less likely to appeal to spectators who take “sadistic pleasure in violence”. As an instrument of soft power, sport has a significant, unrealised potential. Other leaders have identified its possibilities and slowly we are beginning to see its value. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently noted that sport provides a “unique opportunity” to broaden and deepen Australia’s engagement with Asia. In our increasingly interconnected world, it is an opportunity that sports and clubs across Australia should seriously investigate. If Minister Bishop is serious, the availability of grants and technical assistance would encourage local clubs to explore and realise the unique opportunities to which she referred. Sport is an overlooked channel of intercultural exchange that should be explored, developed and celebrated. If used with the sincere intention of bringing diverse peoples together, it can also serve as a powerful and effective instrument of soft diplomacy. Andrew Hunter is Chair of the Australian Fabians fabians.org.au