Breaking down the 5 main differences between sports diplomacy and sports tourism

The 21st century has been a golden era for sports diplomacy and sports tourism.

Diplomatic objectives can be achieved through sports tourism, and sports tourism often is a significant part of sports diplomacy.

Because these two ideas are intertwined in many ways, it’s necessary to define each and understand what separates them from each other.

What is sports diplomacy?

Sports diplomacy is a practice that uses the universal language of sport as a tool to mediate estrangement between disparate social groups, minimize friction in international affairs, and overcome divisive barriers.

Sport transcends acrimony in political relationships and increases contact between separate cultures, groups, and individuals. This contact reduces division, political and social tension, xenophobia and other contributing factors to inter-group violence.

As a means for advancing diplomatic relationships, sport is particularly effective because:

  • The same rules apply to all. There are no age, racial or cultural barriers to participation.
  • It’s a universal language. It’s common to every human mind, body and soul.
  • It inherently achieves the core mission of diplomacy. Sport conveys a unique ability to diffuse and mitigate conflict between disparate individuals, nations, and cultures.

Sports diplomacy has been practiced since the first Olympics in ancient Greece, but has recently become a huge segment of modern diplomatic agendas.

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has an entire department dedicated to sports diplomacy, and many other countries are following suit. One of the primary purposes of diplomacy is to secure the objectives of a nation’s foreign policies without resorting to force, propaganda, or law, and sport is one of the most powerful and efficient ways to do that.

Sports diplomacy got its start in Ancient Greece, when warring states would table their conflicts to participate in Olympic competitions.

What is sports tourism?

Sports tourism is leisure-based, temporary travel that enables people to participate in or observe physical activities and competitions.

There are four types of sport tourists:

  • Casual. These tourists attend sporting events but were visiting the host community for other reasons.
  • Event-based. These tourists travel to a destination to watch others participate in sports.
  • Celebratory. These tourists travel to a destination to halls of fame, museums and stadiums.
  • Participatory. These tourists travel to a destination to play a sport.

For decades, we’ve seen cities and countries bid on hosting large-scale events like the World Cup and the Olympics because of the financial impact and concomitant sports tourism that come with the event.

Researchers have discovered many interesting findings surrounding the economics of sports tourism:

  • International visitors spend more than domestic visitors.
  • For every 100 miles a visitor group travels, they spend an average of $26 USD.
  • The more prestigious the event, the more money spent.
  • First-time sports tourists spend more money than repeaters do.
  • Spectators with a player association spend more time and money in the local economy (e.g. parents with kids participating in the Little League World Series spend more time and money in Williamsport than visiting fans).
Sports tourism is a massive industry and has accumulated a great deal of momentum in the 21st century.

What are the main differences between sports diplomacy and sports tourism?

1. Agendas

The biggest contrast between sports diplomacy and tourism lies in the core intentions of each endeavor. Regardless of the type of sport tourist, the underlying objective is focused on leisure and travel, while those engaging in sports diplomacy are aiming to accomplish political or social agendas.

2. Places of implementation

It’s true both sports diplomacy and tourism generally operate through a global lens, but in the case of diplomacy, there’s not always a need to travel. Hosting a neighborhood event that brings police and first responders together with the community they serve is a form of diplomacy at a hyper-local level.

Here are some other examples of domestic diplomacy:

  • Providing after-school sports programming at homeless shelters and low-socioeconomic school districts
  • Building a select sports team with youth from both wealthy and low-income neighborhoods
  • 3×3 tournaments or other sport-based competitions to raise funds for charitable causes

3. Funding sources

Sports tourism is generally something individuals and groups pay for out of pocket. Conversely, sports diplomacy initiatives are typically backed by governments, NGOs and nonprofits, and other well-funded stakeholders interested in advancing diplomatic agendas.

4. Access and restrictions

Individuals and groups traveling overseas as part of state-sponsored cultural exchange programs often receive greater access to certain places, events, and activities that would otherwise be forbidden or difficult to obtain as a typical tourist. Program schedules are put together well in advance by program managers responsible for designing activities that will achieve the goals of the exchanges. This affords program participants opportunities to meet with high-level government officials, athletes and celebrities without trying to plan these activities themselves. Groups on diplomatic exchanges routinely get free access to major sporting events such as NBA and MLS games, and get all-access tours of stadiums, universities and other prestigious points of interest.

5. Action plans

When sports tourists return home, there is no expectation for them to take any action on what they may have learned while away from their home communities. Participants in diplomatic missions, particularly exchange programs, are usually tasked with implementing action plans developed during the outbound portion of their exchange. The exclusive access to people and places outlined in No. 4 on this list doesn’t come without a cost – participants are expected to take the knowledge they acquired through these meetings and activities and use it to improve their communities back home. This can include:

  • Starting their own sports academies
  • Designing programs that increase access to sport for women, minorities, people with disabilities, and other underserved communities
  • Building new coaching curricula for their clubs, schools and academies

Similarities and crossovers in sports diplomacy and sports tourism

More and more governments are recognizing the power of sport to advance political agendas.

After reading the definitions and differences of each term, it may seem like there isn’t much crossover between the two concepts. But the reality is there are as many similarities as there are differences:

  • Actors and participants. Sport diplomacy is not limited to state actors and government bureaucrats. It can be a form of citizen diplomacy, which occurs when non-state state sporting actors (NSSAs) participate in diplomatic initiatives, such as exchange programs, that bring together alienated people, organizations and states together in ways that conventional diplomacy or statecraft cannot. Ultimately, anyone can engage in sports diplomacy just as anyone can engage in sports tourism.
  • Travel. While diplomacy can occur at micro-levels within the same city, it’s most notably at work across borders. Sports tourism, at minimum, includes travel beyond one’s home city and often occurs abroad. Both diplomacy and tourism can take place in foreign nations.
  • Relationships with people from different geographical, religious, and political backgrounds. Connecting and collaborating with different cultures and communities is the foundation of sports diplomacy, but sports tourism often cultivates relationships between disparate groups in the same manner. When tourist groups leave behind their home communities, they’re increasing contact with people outside of their familiar circles and subsequently eliminating barriers that previously divided them.

In summary, sports diplomacy and sports tourism share many similarities, from the people who participate in them to the relationships they build with people outside of their home communities. But there are stark differences between the two concepts that are important to distinguish. People on diplomatic missions tend to have more access to high-level people and places, but also carry more responsibilities to implement what they’ve learned into their work back home.

To learn more about sports diplomacy and sports tourism, and to see how you can participate in either, subscribe to my blog below.

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