By Dan BeeryMarch 10, 2013
One month from today marks the anniversary of one of the biggest diplomatic break throughs in American history... and it all started on a fifteen minute bus ride with one athlete reaching out to another...
American table tennis player Glenn Cowan had missed his teams ride and Chinese player Liang Geliang and teammates offered him a lift in their bus. After ten of the fifteen minute drive had rolled past, Geliang walked to the front of the bus and handed Cowan a gift. Cowan quickly searched through his duffle bag for a gift that he could return the kindness with, but all he could find was a comb. “ I can’t give you a comb. I wish I could give you something, but I can’t.” responded Cowan.
The return gesture came months later and far from the small town of Nagoya, Batam, where the two had first met. It involved a full envoy of athletes and coaches crossing over a small bridge from Hong Kong to mainland China. Historians refer to the envoy that Cowan and his teammates were on as the start of ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’ which lead to years of dialogue and new found openness between the United States and China.
Sports diplomacy or envoy work made international news again last week when NBA star Dennis Rodman traveled to and spent time with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea. While the historians have yet to weigh in on Rodman’s encounter with the controversial leader, what can be said is that the basketball player gained access and spent time with Kim Jong-un, in a manner that no other American has since the young supreme leader of North Korea took over the office from his deceased father in December of 2011.
What history has taught us is that accomplished athletes have a way of closing and opening ‘diplomatic doors’, the later most often the case when the visits to foreign lands are coordinated through diplomatic channels.
In 2002, the U.S. Department of State created a new agency SportsUnited with a goal of utilizing American athletes and sports to foster exchange. To date the organization has promoted dozens of sports programs in over seventy countries around the world.
In 2011, while on a Department of Defense Tour of Afghanistan, the small non-profit NGO American300 worked with the United States Air Force and U.S. Embassy Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic to gain access to local youth in Kyrgyzstan. The interaction was such a success that the NGO has revisited the country on two other occasions since then.
Former United States United Nations Ambassador, Bill Richardson puts it this way: “ I think we need out-of-the box diplomatic thinking...” the former Governor of New Mexico who himself has made countless diplomatic trips to foreign countries adds “I support non-traditional diplomacy.” Governor Richardson, the statesmen should know.
Seeing NGO’s especially Private Volunteer Organization’s (PVO’s) like American300 and others assisting our government is exactly the type of low cost ‘out-of-the box’ programming that our country needs right now.
Whether it be ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ or Olympians and professional sports athletes doesn’t really matter... what we need to focus on is that ‘friends don’t throw rocks at friends’ and making friendships is what sports diplomacy is all about... no matter the sport involved.
Note- Dan Beery was a member of the 2004 US Olympic Team. He is a 3x World Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist who lives in Northtown, PA and volunteers for American300 on both DoD and DoS Envoys.