Can Sports Bring World Peace?

Last week's deadly attack on Togo's soccer team is just the latest evidence that—heartwarming Olympic stories and movies like Invictus aside—athletics are no panacea.

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.

But despite the many feel-good stories, high profile sporting events have served equally well, it seems, as a means by which to sow dissension: think of the Munich massacre, or the 1996 Olympic Park bombing. And in 1916, the unifying power of sports proved no match for the hostilities of World War I:  the Berlin Olympics, long planned for that year, had to be canceled.

The World Cup has seen its share of political violence as well. In 1969 El Salvador beat Honduras in a World Cup qualifying match, igniting longstanding tension between the two countries into a brief war. Perhaps having learned its lesson, just last year FIFA indefinitely postponed a match between Chad and Sudan as hostilities simmered between the two.

And Iran has prioritized its hatred over its chances at athletic success every time: the Iranian government’s longstanding refusal to acknowledge Israel’s sovereignty has led its athletes to skip all direct competition against Israel, including FIFA matches and Olympic events.

We want so badly to believe that all we really need to achieve world peace is a ball. But even some of the seeming triumphs of sports over hatred have been mirages.

In September 2008, the presidents of Armenia and Turkey used soccer to reopen diplomatic dialogue. The two countries had severed relations and sealed their common border more than a decade earlier, but a World Cup qualifying match between their national teams prompted Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to extend an invitation to his Turkish counterpart. It was the first-ever visit to Armenia by a Turkish head of state, and prompted Time magazine to wonder, “ Can Soccer Heal Turkey-Armenia Rift?”

The answer, it appeared, was yes. Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s historic visit to Armenia eventually resulted in an agreement between the countries to reestablish ties and reopen their border. But as of today the Turkish Parliament has yet to ratify the agreement, insisting that Armenia first make territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. Politics, it seems, is more complex than a soccer match.

Also last summer, the U.S. national team played in Cuba for the first time since 1947. But while many pundits saw the game as an opportunity for improved political relations, the match was due more to FIFA requirements than any diplomatic efforts on the part of either country.

In truth, U.S.-Cuban relations have changed little despite several sports-related efforts at friendship. American Little League teams twice visited Cuba for exhibition games in the last decade, but the Bush administration officially discouraged the practice and made no corresponding diplomatic efforts. And when the Baltimore Orioles hosted the Cuban baseball team in 1999, the game was briefly interrupted by a Cuban-American protester who ran onto the field with an anti-Castro sign and was promptly pummeled by the Cuban umpire stationed near second base. World peace? Not in the infield.

Still, we let our hopes obscure reality. We were delighted in July when Iraq proved stable enough to host its first national soccer team home game since 2002. But the cheers of the capacity crowd at Fransou Hariri Stadium included chants of “Death to Israel” and “Death to America.”

With people so desperate to kill us that they’re willing to hide explosives in their underwear, and  so much death and destruction in the news, we crave feel-good solutions that will promote world harmony. We tell ourselves that the Olympics can make everybody love each other; that basketball and soccer can bring peace to Israel, conciliation to Ireland, and understanding to South Africa; that sports’ power to heal is stronger than hatred’s power to destroy.

But when three men on their way to a soccer tournament are gunned down by separatists in a country that was probably too unstable to be hosting a major international sports event in the first place, we learn a different lesson. If sports are really going to save the world, we need those kids who are now shooting baskets and goals in Israel and Ireland and South Africa to become not athletes but political leaders. And they’d better grow up fast.