Sports Diplomacy: Dispelling Myths and Building Bridges in an Age of Disinformation
Russia’s forays into hybrid warfare have elevated disinformation to a critical foreign policy concern. Technological innovations such as bots and trolls enable the Kremlin to target Europeans with falsehoods intended to undermine citizens’ faith in their own leaders and institutions. In doing so, the Kremlin is attempting to erode the backbone of transatlantic unity and discredit the basic organizing principles of post-Cold War Europe. As the public diplomacy desk officer for Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, I have worked with interagency teams to coordinate a whole-of-government approach to addressing disinformation across Europe. This experience suggests that as we work to formulate a cohesive response, we should capitalize on new technology and also preserve such classic public diplomacy programs as people-to-people exchanges. Sports diplomacy exchanges are a particularly powerful tool to correct false narratives, promote open societies and build lasting ties in even the most difficult contexts.
Sports Diplomacy 101
The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) defines sports diplomacy as using the universal passion for sports to transcend linguistic and sociocultural differences and bring people together. Because the United States does not have a Ministry of Culture or Sports, the State Department covers the sports policy space and conducts two-way, international people-to-people exchanges using sports as the platform. Over the past six years, ECA has expanded its sports diplomacy programming into more than 100 countries, all aiming to build bridges between Americans and people around the world. These programs do not exist in a vacuum; each advances a U.S. foreign policy goal and complements existing U.S. government programs. The majority of programs are executed through cooperative grants that directly benefit U.S. organizations and create inroads for U.S. businesses to foreign sports industries. Sports diplomacy programs can also open doors in countries whose governments are suspicious of U.S. intentions, including those under Russia’s watchful gaze.
ECA’s sports diplomacy programming is built around four primary pillars:
1. Sports Envoys: American athletes and coaches at the top of their game who travel overseas to lead programs developed by U.S. missions. Envoys hold sports clinics, participate in community outreach and engage youth on the importance of leadership and diversity.
2. Sports Visitors: Young, non-elite athletes, coaches or sports administrators chosen by U.S. missions overseas to participate in a two-week exchange program in the United States. Visitors’ activities include sessions on conflict resolution, strength and conditioning, gender- and disability-inclusion and team building.
3. Sports Grants: Also called the International Sports Programming Initiative, this annual open competition allows U.S. public and private nonprofit organizations that meet the Internal Revenue Service’s 501(c)(3) provisions to propose exchange projects that reach underserved youth and/or their coaches who manage youth sports programs. The program uses sports to help underserved youth around the world develop leadership skills, promote tolerance and achieve academic success, and it can be a key tool to advance foreign policy goals in difficult environments.
4. Global Sports Mentoring Program: The espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program and Sport for Community Global Sports Mentoring Program use sports as a vehicle to advance the rights and participation of women and people with disabilities around the world. The two annual mentorship programs connect young professionals in the global sports sector with U.S. sports executives.
Of the many U.S. government-funded public diplomacy programs in Ukraine and Moldova, the Global Sports Mentoring Partnership (GSMP) provides particularly vivid anecdotes. Since 2012, this highly selective program has increased sports opportunities for women and girls around the world through a public-private partnership with espnW and a cooperative grant partnership with the University of Tennessee’s Center for Sport, Peace & Society. The GSMP pairs participants with leaders from the corporate and nonprofit sectors, helping them cultivate management and business skills that increase their earning potential and ability to help others after they return home. In turn, American mentors and their organizations benefit from an enhanced global network and inroads into the sports communities overseas. To ensure that the program’s lessons extend beyond the five-week in-person segment, the GSMP requires participants to develop action plans in consultation with their mentors and provides small grants for implementation. By broadcasting success stories from programs such as GSMP, we can undercut Russian disinformation about the United States with a positive narrative and message of hope. Following are two of those stories.
Ukraine: Olga Dolinina
Ukraine faces Russian aggression daily on multiple fronts. Violence in eastern Ukraine has resulted in more than 10,000 deaths since 2014. Throughout Ukraine, and most acutely in the east, Russia spews a stream of disinformation through traditional and online media channels to undermine Ukrainians’ faith in their own government and their chosen European path. Ukraine’s Olga Dolinina participated in the GSMP in 2014, in the wake of the Maidan revolution and Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea, and she describes the experience as “electric.”
In a July 2017 interview, Dolinina explained her lifelong interest in ways sports can promote gender equality in societies hamstrung by traditional gender norms. When Russian aggression forced Dolinina to leave her position as the marketing and public relations director for a professional hockey team in Donbas in eastern Ukraine, she became a project coordinator with Save the Children Ukraine. The GSMP gave Dolinina a critical network that helped her launch an organization to use sports as a vehicle for peace at a pivotal time in her country’s history. She credits her GSMP mentor, National Hockey League (NHL) Senior Vice President for Integrated Marketing Susan Cohig, with demonstrating that women can hold high positions and break glass ceilings. The GSMP infused Dolinina with a spark that she passed to Ukrainian youth, igniting in them self-confidence and an ability to turn turmoil into networks and unity.
Dolinina had long observed a need to empower girls suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the conflict zone of eastern Ukraine, where explosions and fatalities are a daily occurrence. After participating in the GSMP, Dolinina drew upon the action plan she’d developed with Cohig to launch Break the Ice, an NGO dedicated to reaching hundreds of conflict-affected children in eastern Ukraine suffering from PTSD. Break the Ice, Ukraine’s first sports-for-development organization, uses table hockey and ice hockey to promote social change and peacebuilding in Ukraine’s communities most affected by instability, social tension and ongoing conflict. Dolinina secured funding from the University of Tennessee for follow-on projects and points to the sustained support of her GSMP network, including her mentor, as instrumental to her success. Dolinina is emphatic that sports diplomacy programs encourage peaceful coexistence, enabling youth to better endure acute stress and to develop critical life skills for future endeavors. Moving Ukraine toward a lasting peace is a key U.S. foreign policy goal, and Dolinina’s work—fueled by her GSMP experience—is directly advancing this objective.
Moldova: Natalia Zbîrnea
Moldovan marathoner Natalia Zbîrnea seeks to use sports to transform women’s prospects in Moldova—Europe’s poorest country and one still largely defined by traditional gender roles. Zbîrnea joined 15 other women from around the world for the 2016 GSMP program. She was paired with Veronica “Ronnie” Tucker, vice president of marketing and digital for New York Road Runners, to advise her on finding sponsorships and promotions, developing as a leader and telling a compelling story. Since completing the GSMP program and returning to Moldova, Zbîrnea created the Comunitatea Femeilor Active (Community of Active Women) to empower Moldovan women, foster support networks and spur a conversation on the importance of physical activity, diet and healthy living. She has held weekly training sessions for the past four months and is developing partnerships to expand into hosting races and other activities.
In a June 2017 interview, Zbîrnea said she had always wanted to start a women’s running group. She saw Moldovan women of a certain economic status flock to “shaping classes” at ritzy gyms, but this wasn’t an option for women on a tight budget. Coming from a modest background herself, Zbîrnea saw a niche for women looking for a free way to get back in shape, particularly after childbirth, while forming a community with other women. But Zbîrnea still doubted whether the running group could succeed; many Moldovan women find it difficult to escape household responsibilities. “I couldn’t push them to come,” she explains, confiding her fear that no one would show up. For Zbîrnea, the most powerful aspect of the GSMP was her fellow participants’ enthusiasm for her idea. “They believed in me, said my idea was amazing and that it would work,” she says. “It was so powerful to have others believe in me.” Zbîrnea credits her mentor with helping organize her thoughts and transform her idea into an action plan complete with a budget and business strategy. This mentorship, combined with ongoing support from her fellow participants, enabled Zbîrnea to launch her dream running group when she returned to Chisinau in late 2016. While attendance in the group sometimes flags, Zbîrnea has created an anomaly in Moldovan society: a cost-free group for women that enables them to forget their household burdens, if only fleetingly, and to do something just for themselves while also forming lasting friendships.
Zbîrnea’s initiative advances bedrock U.S. foreign policy goals of supporting a robust civil society and encouraging equal gender participation. Perhaps more profoundly, her experience in the United States positions her as an unofficial American ambassador in Moldova. If conversation turns to a Sputnik or RT report that portrays the United States as an amoral society in decline, Zbîrnea is perfectly positioned to offer a counter point. While personal anecdotes may not staunch the firehose of disinformation, credible voices that can present objective narratives are increasingly valuable and worth cultivating.
A whole-of-government approach that integrates such low-controversy, high-reward programs as the GSMP shows potential to subtly but effectively undermine Russian disinformation about the United States. From Uganda to Moldova, sports are a universal language, a convening power and a potent uniting force. By leveraging this inherent force through sports diplomacy exchanges, we build cultural ambassadors who return to their home countries with an in-depth view of the United States that flies in the face of Russian disinformation.
Cuts to exchange program funding would reduce the State Department’s effectiveness in building people-to-people ties and narratives that undermine dis-information at a critical time. Zbîrnea makes a strong argument for continuing exchanges, citing a “tribe mentality” that develops among exchange program participants and that exerts a ripple effect throughout communities. Dolinina and Zbîrnea both remarked on the profound sense of sisterhood that began during the five-week U.S.-based program and that endures at a frenetic pace on Facebook and What’s App. “We were organized around the same idea and objective: to change the world,” Dolinina declared.
Like all public diplomacy programs, sports diplomacy is not a magic bullet. By themselves, sports diplomacy exchanges will not sway national public opinion toward a more favorable view of the United States. But when combined with other programs and information campaigns, exchange participants’ transformations can have a profound ripple effect on perceptions of the United States. And in the face of narratives that paint the United States in chaos and decline, these ripple effects help broadcast our enduring messages on democracy, human rights and the value of international cooperation.
 U.S. Department of State website: https://eca.state.gov/programs-initiatives/sports-diplomacy. Accessed June 21, 2017.
Kathryn W. Davis Public Diplomacy Fellow, 2016-2017