Sport as the lubricant of peaceful coexistence
When PM Narendra Modi first met PM Boris Johnson at the 2019 G7 in Biarritz, Modi opened by congratulating England on their stunning Ashes Test win over Australia. Ben Stokes had kept the series alive with his impressive 135 not out. This was, surprisingly, the first Johnson had heard of it. It wasn’t until after the meeting that he grabbed an iPad to watch the highlights.
‘Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English’ Ashis Nandy wrote in his book “The Tao of cricket”. Whether taken as an insult or an example of affectionate wit, it certainly highlights that this cricket mad nation has a surprising respect for its former colonisers’ contribution to the sport they love. They have no problem getting behind England ODI captain Eoin Morgan as he plays for the Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL, nor cheering the excellent cricket of Joe Root when he powered to a double century in the First Test of England’s recent tour of India.
Perhaps this could be extrapolated further. Indeed, for a nation that was (at times brutally) colonised, India appears quite happy to have a relatively good relationship with its former rulers. Whilst many in the West seem to enjoy the orgy of self-flagellation that has occurred in the last few years concerning European history, relations between India and Britain have thrived. Had coronavirus not scuppered his plans, Johnson would have been the honoured guest of Modi at India’s 72nd Republic Day.
It is with this view in mind that we should recognise the capacity for sport to act as a healer and lubricant of progress. Nelson Mandela, as so eloquently described in the book and film Invictus, used it to bring together the fledgling Rainbow Nation. At the 2018 Winter Olympic games, after a remarkable period of tense diplomacy, the two Koreas came together to form a single entity for the purposes of sport. Relations seemed to improve for at least the year afterwards.
Even China has used sport as a means of diplomacy.
For all the complexity of international relations and all the uncontrollable tangents it can take, perhaps it is surprising that the catalyst for the opening to China occurred when a shaggy-haired, 19-year-old athlete, jumped onto a shuttle bus carrying the Chinese national team at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan. After an exchange of gifts that was captured on camera (a silk screen picture for a t-shirt emblazoned with a peace symbol – no prizes for guessing who gave what), Chairman Mao invited the US players to tour China. The rest is history. Reflecting in his memoirs on this remarkable example of ‘ping pong diplomacy’, President Richard Nixon wrote ‘I had never expected that the China Initiative would come to fruition in the form of a ping-pong team’. On 10th April 1971, the team became the first American delegation to set foot in the Chinese capital since 1949. Three months later, Henry Kissinger made his now famous secret visit that set the irreversible train toward ‘opening up’ in motion.
It is clear, in retrospect, that Nixon had for many years wanted greater engagement with China, both to end the Vietnam war, and to create the ‘triangular diplomacy’ used to isolate the USSR. ‘There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation’ he’d once wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1967. The next year, just before his Presidential election victory, he said in a magazine interview, ‘We must not forget China. We must always seek opportunities to talk with her, as with the USSR’. Indeed, had the opportunity presented by this random sporting occurrence not happened, it is likely some other method of exploring Chinese aversion to the USSR would have been found, but this is beside the point. It did happen and, as a result, greased the wheels of diplomacy.
President Joe Biden once declared ‘politics is personal, particularly international relations’. If nations are made up of people, and friendships made up of common interests, it makes sense that those nations which share the same hobbies are more likely to get along than those that do not. Have a think of how many of your mates watch the same sports you do and how often you have bonded as a result. International relations are no different. I wonder if the US Government has considered inviting a Chinese basketball team to tour the United States.