One of the universal languages is the language of sports. Soccer, basketball, ice hockey, golf and other sports provide a healthy outlet for participants as well as hours of entertainment for spectators. And recent experience has shown that sports can be much more -- they can even a medium for breaking down barriers among nations.
Daniel Doyle, who is the founder and director of the Institute for International Sport in Kingston, Rhode Island, says there is a name for this: it's called sports diplomacy. "There are very few things that can evoke the kind of emotional response than a great sporting event can evoke," he points out.
Mr. Doyle created his non-profit organization, which is located on the University of Rhode Island campus, as a means for promoting global friendships among youth and future world leaders through sport, culture and education.
Always a sports enthusiast, Mr. Doyle was first a basketball player, then a basketball coach. In 1980 he took his college team to Cuba in the first visit of a U-S group to the Communist nation since the Castro takeover in 1959. "It was an extraordinary experience,' he says. "And we got to know people at the highest level of Cuban sport with whom we disagreed politically but who we established relationships with on a personal basis."
The experience inspired Mr. Doyle to found the Institute for International Sport in 1986, which sponsors a variety of programs, among them the World Scholar Athlete Games. Held every four years since 1993, the games have included travel to Northern Ireland, Australia and the Middle East.
The World Scholar Athlete Games are unusual, says Daniel Doyle, because there are no national teams. "You would have a woman soccer team made up of sixteen young women from sixteen countries. You would have a men's basketball team made up of twelve young men from twelve different countries." Mr. Doyle says that regardless of the differences in the players' backgrounds, "When you're on a team, you're on a team." He adds, "Within two or three days, the common language is cooperation as opposed to dissent."
The idea of sports diplomacy is not new. On April sixth, 1971, the first intimation of possible communications being established between the United States and Communist China came when Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai invited the United States' national table tennis team to the People's Republic of China for a match. It was the first officially sanctioned visit by the United States since 1949 and was quickly dubbed "Ping-Pong Diplomacy," or the "ping heard 'round the world." The matches are said to be among the factors that prompted President Richard Nixon to initiate trade and travel between the two nations.
Judy Bochenski Hoarfrost was fifteen years old and a player on the U-S team when she took part in the historic event. She says, "Their motto then was friendship first, competition second." We were among people who loved the sport like we did," she recalls, 'and they were showing us the best of their world, just as we would want to show them the best of our world."
Ms. Hoarfrost, who today lives in Portland, Oregon, and owns a company that sells Ping-Pong tables, says the experience in China offered a life-long lesson. "I wish that everybody could have that experience of playing a sport or having some hobby or having any opportunity to get to know people from a totally different culture or different country so that we can see how much we really have in common."
But Daniel Doyle at the Institute for International Sport says it's not always necessary to have a high-profile event such as the 1971 table tennis games to improve relations between two groups of peoples. More modest sports competitions can achieve the same end. "I think most people think of it in a kind of grand scale of the U-S table tennis team or U-S/Iran wrestling." he says. "But I propose that it extends beyond that and that much of the great sports diplomacy comes, at least in terms of planting seeds of cooperation, from more grass roots events. It might not be a U.S. national team but a U.S. high school team to Israel or northern Ireland -- and 'seeds of peace,' to use a favorite term, are planted."
The Institute for International Sport is now accepting applications for the next Scholar Athlete Games, which will be held in 2006. This application process -- like applying to college or playing sports -- can be extremely competitive. More information is available on the Institute's website at www.internationalsport.com