Weaponized sports undermines the original diplomacy of friendly competition
Countries can use sports as wonderful tools of political diplomacy. Anybody who has ever watched Forrest Gump has some knowledge of the practice: part of the movie fictionalizes the American ping-pong team being invited by their Chinese counterparts to visit the People’s Republic of China. This ping-pong team was the first group of Americans to enter China since its communist takeover in 1949. This visit marked the beginning of “pingpong diplomacy,” and Time dubbed it “the ping heard round the world.”
“Pingpong diplomacy” began more than 60 years ago, but it was not the only instance of sports being used as diplomacy. Every two years, nations come together, put aside political squabbles and compete in the Olympics. This history of sports having a positive diplomatic effect is what makes it so upsetting that the Tunisian government recently ordered tennis player Malek Jaziri to refuse to play a match against Israeli player Amir Weintraub.
Jaziri’s brother and manager, Amir Jaziri, told the Agence France-Presse that “at the political level, (Malek) received an order not to play. It was an email from the Tunisian Tennis Federation, via the national technical director.” He quoted the email as saying, “After the meeting at the Ministry of Youth and Sports with Riadh Azaiez, I regret to inform you that you cannot play.”
Jaziri did pull out of the match, citing a knee injury, but the Tunisian media painted this injury as a heroic act. The Tunisian Daily La Presse said that Jaziri’s withdrawal “won respect and preserved his honor,” and the newspaper deemed the injury a “diplomatic” act.
Tunisia’s directive to Jaziri is not totally out of the blue. The country has historically supported Palestine, and in April, the Tunisian government recalled the national taekwondo team after a match against Israel.
However, while Tunisia and Israel may not get along, Jaziri and Weintraub have had a history of friendship. They have known each other for years and are members of the same tennis club in Paris. When the AFP contacted the club’s owner, he cited Jaziri as the reason the club recruited Weintraub.
This incident conveys the message that people can get along despite disagreements between their countries. This message rings especially true in the world of sports, where an opponent is simply an opponent to play a match against, not a representative of a political foe. To use sports to bond with others is an important tool which countries must use in our increasingly global society, but to use sports as a weapon against another country is not only unfair to the players, but to the very nature of sports.
Opinion columnist Emily Johnson is an English literature freshman and may be reached at [email protected]