Baseball as Diplomacy: Speak Softly and Carry a Big Bat

It’s only a game, right?

As the United States finds itself eliminated by Japan in the World Baseball Classic, it makes one wonder about the value of international sports competitions.

The Olympic Games were originally conceived as a way for the world to come together in harmony over a common cultural activity: sports. Nations who were literally on the verge of war together could come to the sports arena together and solve their diplomatic problems by a footrace, literally.

Sports is a great diplomatic tool. It requires no language barrier. Anyone who knows the rules of soccer or basketball can play against each other and avoid translation problems. Take Saturday’s game of South Korea versus Venezuela. You don’t have to speak Korean or Spanish to know what’s going on during the game. Balls, strikes, first base, second base, third base, home plate, and home run are the only words you really need to know. Anything else is just technical.

As an English-speaking American, I was able to watch it and know what was going on, despite having the trusty ESPN announcers telling me things that I can see on the screen for myself. I don’t know if South Korea and Venezuela have good or bad diplomatic relations (if any at all), but this was one way for people from these two countries to come together.

During the 2006 FIFA World Cup, there were reports that fighting in Gaza and some other hot spots around the world stopped temporarily when people on both sides of the battles laid down their arms to watch the games. That’s the best way to achieve long-lasting world peace: have soccer games play continuously 365 days a year. We could end war by the end of the month. Except in America, where soccer will never be popular.

But then things got bad. Steroids allegations have become common place in the summer Olympic games. It seemed like everyday when a new Olympic gold medalist was caught using some banned substance, or in Michael Phelps’ case, smoking a somewhat banned substance. Cheating is now a fact of life. Just ask Alex Rodriguez.

Unfortunately, now the Olympic Games, which was supposed to bring people together, are causing more tension in international relations just because some athletes want to get an unfair edge in competition. Barry Bonds and A-Rod are not the exceptions, they might be the rule. If you want further proof of cheating in sports, interview any of those 12 year old Chinese girls who competed in gymnastics. There is no way they are older than puberty.

If sports are good for international relations, then cheating is the equivalency of cross-border raids. Nitpicky small violations of sovereignty that’s not big enough to start a war, but large enough to cause fuss.

The World Baseball Classic, which is the real World Series, is just one example of globalization coming in the form of balls and strikes instead of trade, transnational corporations, military alliances, and governmental treaties. Sometimes a soccer ball can be more powerful than a diplomatic table. I’d rather watch Ronaldinho in action than Henry Kissinger.

But if cheating becomes too big of a problem, then the playing field becomes another battle front. Same if politics enter into politics. It was a shame to see the Iranian judo athlete who refused to compete against an Israeli athlete out of sympathy for “the suffering of the people of Palestine.” That’s not going to make things better.

So, it can be a good thing for international sports like the WBC to become a popular way for peoples of the world to come together. Just make sure politics stay off the field and let the players do their thing.

If we can learn to cheer in the stands together, we can perhaps learn to live in peace together. If that’s the case, then it’s more than just a game. It’s the future.

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One Comment on “Baseball as Diplomacy: Speak Softly and Carry a Big Bat”

  1. Mizu Sugimura Says:

    I’m more inclined because of my age, to pull the decline of the Olympics to the days when ABC Sports would tally say, US medal totals with that of the then USSR, China, etc. You’d think the Olympics were about the free world vs. communism. I understand folks much older than myself can date this type of behavior back to World War II and the era of Hitler’s Germany…


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