Last Friday morning, the people of Togo woke up hopeful of their national soccer team’s chances in the African Cup of Nations tournament. By afternoon there was little hope left. Gunmen in Angola’s volatile Cabinda region, where the tournament is being held, had ambushed the Togolese team bus. The assistant coach, the team spokesman, and the bus driver were dead; eight others aboard the bus were wounded, including the starting goalie. “Our boys went to Angola to celebrate the best in African [soccer]," a local Togo leader told the Associated Press, "but they came back with dead bodies and bullet wounds.”
Meanwhile, that same week, Iran’s national soccer federation found itself embroiled in a scandal so embarrassing that the head of the federation issued a public apology, and one of his top officers resigned. The “scandal” was the unintended inclusion of Israel among the recipients of Iran’s annual New Year’s greeting to FIFA members.
Taken together, the two events send a clear message to the many world leaders, organizations, and athletes trying to use sports to pave the road to world peace: it’s not working.
Sports have long been idealized as a way to heal wounds, mend fences, and rise above differences among cultures and nations. As we look ahead to the Olympics in a few weeks and the World Cup after that, are we fools to think that sports can not only transcend politics but pave a path to peace?
Nobody sells the sports-as-diplomacy theme better than the Olympics, which aims “to build a peaceful and better world thanks to sport.” Most everything about the Games echoes these ideals: the interlocking Olympic rings that symbolize the coming together of the five continents, the determinedly harmonious atmosphere at Olympic village, and the very existence of the IOC’s Olympic Truce Foundation and its stated goal of finding “peaceful and diplomatic solutions to the conflicts around the world.”
Soccer’s World Cup, too, is often viewed as an event so transcendent of politics and prejudice that even nations embroiled in war lay down their arms and come together for a few weeks to cheer on their national team. It seems to have worked for Côte d’Ivoire, where star striker Didier Drogba spoke publicly before, during, and after the 2006 World Cup about the tournament’s ability to turn his country’s attention away from civil war. It’s impossible to determine how much of a role soccer truly played in the ending of the conflict, but a peace agreement was reached less than a year after the tournament.
And let’s not forget the movie Invictus, a fictionalized but largely accurate account of how, after being elected South Africa’s first post-Apartheid president, Nelson Mandela shrewdly turned to the rugby World Cup to help foster the country’s healing process and prevent a civil war that many feared was inevitable.
Other world leaders have used sports as a means by which to make conciliatory international gestures. The Chinese government famously invited American ping-pong players to exhibition matches in China in April 1971, the first time Americans were allowed into the country since 1949. And sure enough, within a year of China’s “ping-pong diplomacy,” President Richard Nixon made his own historic trip to China, ending two decades of unfriendly relations between the two superpowers.
China and Japan enacted their version of ping-pong diplomacy last May when Chinese president Hu Jintao played against a Japanese teenager during the first visit of a Chinese president to Japan in 10 years—a visit that Hu referred to as “a warm spring.”
And nonprofit organizations around the world now seek to bridge cultural divides and eliminate hatred by getting warring groups to play sports together. Last summer, for example, Los Angeles Lakers guard Jordan Farmar led basketball camps in Israel that brought together Arab and Jewish children. An organization called PeacePlayers International runs similar youth basketball leagues for Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, blacks and whites in South Africa, Israelis and Palestinians, and Turkish and Greek factions in Cyprus. And UK-based Football 4 Peace International uses soccer much the same way in Israel and in Northern Ireland.