Why 'Team Australia' Needs A New Sports Diplomacy Game Plan As Other Countries Gain An Edge


(MENAFN- The Conversation) Writing of the unique place of Sport in Australian society, the celebrated US travel writer Bill Bryson once wrote“truly, never has there been a more sporting nation ... it is a wonder in such a vigorous and active society that there is anyone left to form an audience”.

Sport is a vital part of who we are, how others see us , and – these days – a low-risk, low-cost and high-profile diplomatic tool in an increasingly divisive geopolitical landscape.

Countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Russia are investing in the sports diplomacy game and, arguably, Australia's edge in this niche area of international relations has dulled a little .

Earlier this week, however, Australia's foreign and sports ministers announced it was time to sharpen that edge, freshen up the team and make Australia stronger and more influential through sport .

Why Australia needs a new strategy

In response to the first periodic review of the Sports Diplomacy 2030 Strategy, the Albanese government announced it will update the strategy, form a new Sports Diplomacy Consultative Group – coordinated by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) – and hold an annual round-table discussion that brings the worlds of sport and diplomacy together.

These initiatives provide a forum to discuss strategic and economic opportunities, risks in international sport, upcoming sports events in Australia and offshore, and ways in which government and the sport sector can work together to advance shared priorities.

Team Australia, in other words, has a new game plan, a bigger squad and an annual strategic retreat.

The announcement is timely. Arguably, Australia is slipping behind while other countries forge ahead.

For example, China spent A$74 million on a new stadium in the Solomon Islands for last year's Pacific Games and also invited Pacific athletes to train in China.

China has also poached high-profile“diplomats in tracksuits” such as Eileen Gu – a brilliant Chinese-American downhill skier brought up in California who chose to represent China at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

While most sports fans can list assets and teams bought by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund – such as the 2021 takeover of English Premier League team Newcastle United and the controversial LIV Golf Tour set up to rival the PGA Tour – they would know less about Riyadh's training in sports diplomacy.

In February 2024, The United Nations Institute for Training and Research ran a five-day executive diploma in sports diplomacy program for participants from the Ministry of Sport of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee in Geneva.

Russia has also weaponised sport, from using mega events to deflect attention from its invasion of other countries to Gazprom – the state-owned multinational energy corporation – proposing a Russian version of the Champions League .

What does sports diplomacy offer?

Sport, when allied to diplomacy, offers western liberal democracies like Australia an authentic, comparative and meaningful advantage over our rivals.

In addition to a bulging trophy cabinet, Australia possesses world class facilities, infrastructure, expertise and sports people.

Programs like PacificAus Sports – responsible for the men's and women's Fijian Drua Super Rugby teams, and the PNG Hunters Rugby League teams – are world class.


Australia is using sports diplomacy to engage with various Pacific nations and their athletes.

Australians value integrity, fair play and equality in sport. Some of our current and former athletes such as Curtis McGrath, Sam Kerr, David Pocock, Adam Goodes, Kim Brennan and Marissa Williamson-Pohlman (who will be the first Indigenous woman to represent Australia in boxing at the Olympics this year) are as powerful, genuine and effective off the pitch as they are on it.

Sports diplomacy, when done well, can break down stereotypes , transcend acrimony and bring people closer together via a shared affinity for physical pursuits.

Meetings between, for example, sports administrators, government officials, and business people on the sidelines of a game create informal relationships that complement formal diplomatic initiatives, such as Australia's desire to better engage Southeast Asia via a new $2 billion push .

International sport generates public diplomacy opportunities, builds relationships and can amplify a state's message, culture and values.

Raising the game

The Albanese government's new approach to sports diplomacy provides a chance to challenge our rivals but only if we think like our sportspeople. We need to work and train hard, innovate and try even harder.

Let's hope other government agencies continue to get behind DFAT as the ongoing team captain, too. The Australian Federal Police, Australian Defence Force, Sports Integrity Australia and many other government agencies are also now using sports diplomacy.

Finally, there's also no point investing in the practice of sports diplomacy if it isn't analysed, measured, studied and researched by the next generation of academics and universities.

While countries like Israel, Hungary and Saudi Arabia are developing research centres and university courses on sports diplomacy, the same cannot be said of Australia.

Diplomatic practice, it should be remembered, is only as good as the theory it is built upon.

Bill Bryson was right. For a relatively small population, there are few countries that are as good, or as addicted, to sport as Australia.

Games, sport and physical pursuits play a massive role in our culture, society and identity. These things deserve to be front and centre of our diplomacy.



The Conversation

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The Conversation

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