The 2022 Beijing Olympic as well as the Paralympic Games took place throughout the month of February in various locations in northern China. The International Olympic Committee has asserted that the games are a means of ‘unifying humanity through elite sports’ and thus must aim to be politically neutral. However, the Beijing Games have faced controversy, with a number of countries diplomatically ‘boycotting’ the Games by refusing to send government representatives in protest. Such decisions have sparked a wider discussion around the tension between sports diplomacy and the unifying power of the Olympic spirit in global affairs.
On 28 February, STEAR hosted a number of distinguished speakers in a discussion about sports diplomacy and its usefulness in gauging the state of global politics. We were happy to welcome 25+ participants from a variety of countries and backgrounds, who were actively engaged in audience interaction throughout the event.
STEAR Vice-President for External Affairs Daniel, who moderated the event, kicked off the event by welcoming participants and briefly contextualizing the topic. He then introduced the guest speakers, each of whom possesses a highly relevant professional and/or academic background for the purposes of this event.
Simon Rofe first outlined key debates in sports diplomacy; by using clear examples from the London 2012 and Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Games, he showed how global politics deeply affect the world of sports, but also how imagery used in international sports can both carry meaning of its own and reflect ongoing political developments. Dr. Rofe also explained how different actors (national, intergovernmental, local, individual…) come together to build a complex picture when it comes to sports diplomacy, especially with advancements in social media.
Thierry Zintz then took the floor, similarly using visual examples to highlight the links between sports and politics. He drew attention to the different ways in which grassroots sports diplomacy can manifest itself, and spoke about the example of China as using high-level sports events to reinforce its status as a powerful global player and to engage in so-called nation branding. However, nation states are not the only relevant actors – bodies like the IOC play a role (e.g. by working to connect North and South Korea), and individual athletes have continuously maneuvered around official rules preventing political demonstrations during (international) sports events.
Finally, Karen Caballero got the opportunity to speak about her experiences in the world of sports diplomacy. She addressed a variety of topics, including athletes’ affairs and welfare (and the athlete-centric perspectives necessary to promote these) and women in sports in the context of sports diplomacy. She spoke about the ways in which her personal background shaped her work in these areas, and concluded by advocating for an inclusive and community-centered approach to sports that prioritizes opportunities for young athletes.
Since many audience members had submitted questions for the three speakers in advance, Daniel left plenty of room for audience interaction and further questions. Topics under discussion in the second half of the event included ways in which the IOC has engaged with current events, especially in terms of China-Russia relations and the current invasion of Ukraine, sports events (and sports community engagement) serving as opportunities for diplomatic and political reconciliation, potential new avenues for inclusion and empowerment as created by sports management actors in response to geopolitical developments, and the importance of athletes’ own agency in navigating complex political situations.
We’d like to thank our guest speakers for their valuable contributions and their time, as well as all audience members for their interesting questions and participation. More exciting events are happening very soon, so we encourage you to stay up to date through our website and social media platforms!
About the speakers
Thierry Zintz (Emeritus Professor at UCLouvain; Former VP of the Belgian IOC)
Thierry Zintz is an emeritus professor of Sports Organisations Management at the Faculty of Sports Sciences of the Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium. He was the Dean of the Faculty between 2010 and 2016. He is in charge of the Olympic Chair Henri de Baillet Latour – Jacques Rogge in Management of Sport Organisations at the same university. In this framework, he works closely with the Louvain Research Institute in Management (LouRIM) as a senior researcher and member of the Center for Research in Entrepreneurial Change and Innovation Strategies (CRECIS). He was also Vice-President of the Belgian Olympic and Interfederal Committee from 2001 until 2017 and is Past-President of the European Observatory of Sport and Employment (EOSE). From May 2010 until September 2021, he was the director of MEMOS, an Executive Master in Management of Sport organisations, organised by the International Olympic Committee. He is a member of the Olympic Education Commission of the International Olympic Committee (since 2015) and of the Standing Committee for Education of the World Antidoping Agency (since 2018). He is Vice-President of the board of directors of Special Olympics Belgium.
Dr J. Simon Rofe (Reader at the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS University)
Dr J. Simon Rofe is Reader in Diplomatic and International Studies in the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, at SOAS University of London: he was the School’s Head of Digital Learning (2016-2020) and is Programme Director for the MA Global Diplomacy. Simon has an international research profile addressing sports diplomacy, with a particular focus upon sports relationship with diplomatic practice and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs.) Simon has developed the first MA module globally to address ‘Sport and Diplomacy: More than a Game’, following a role in the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) in 2012. Simon founded the Sport, Diplomacy, and Governance Hub, which provides for multi-directional knowledge exchange, and has established the Global Sports Conversations podcast series. Simon’s has established a strong multinational network of relevant contacts in the realm of Sport and Diplomacy.
Karen Tanchanco-Caballero (Deputy Secretary General at The Philippine Olympic Committee)
Karen Claire Tanchanco-Caballero is the current Deputy Secretary General of the Philippine Olympic Committee and a former National Athlete/Archer. She is also the first Woman Vice President of The Asian Sepaktakraw Federation (ASTAF) and the International Sepaktakraw Federation (ISTAF) as well as Chair of Women in Sports Committee of ISTAF and ASTAF. Moreover, she holds a role as the Vice Chair of Women in Sports Commission at the Philippine Olympic Committee and as Board Member of the Air Force Special Services Group, Multi-Sector Advisory Board focusing on Gender and Development and Sports and Athlete's Management and Programs. She is also serving as Deputy Chef de Mission of team Philippines for the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China as well as having previously served as the Chairperson of Women and Sports Committee of The Southeast Asian Games Federation, Sports Director of the Philippines SEA Games Organizing Committee (PHISGOC) and Chef de Mission of Team Philippines for the 2016 Asian Beach Games in Da Nang, Vietnam. A firm believer that sports plays a crucial role in Nation Building, she is committed to continue her volunteer work for the Filipino athletes and her advocacy to Women in Sports locally and abroad.