Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Montana’s Role in Global Sports Diplomacy

Montana’s Role in Global Sports Diplomacy


Deena Mansour

Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center

An effort by the U.S. to broker a diplomatic meeting between Russia and the Ukraine over the Crimea confrontation fails.  The United Nations blames escalating violence in Syria on world powers that have failed to act.  Three Persian Gulf states pull their ambassadors from Qatar over its continued support of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Each of these incidents is drawn from today’s headlines, each indicating a breakdown in diplomacy. 

The Mansfield Center is an academic unit of the University of Montana, which entails the usual conferences, research, and academic exchange.  But one thing that is special about our Center is our emphasis on community engagement.  This effort centers on public diplomacy:  fostering people-to-people relations in a long-term approach to forestall global crisis.

While we’ve worked with people across the state on such critical issues such as natural resources and trade, we’re excited to approach new territory for the Mansfield Center: the realm of Sports Diplomacy.

Sports diplomacy has emerged as an integral part of efforts to build relations between the U.S. and other nations.  This type of diplomacy uses the universal passion for sports as a way to transcend linguistic and sociocultural differences, and bring people together.  Participation in sports teaches leadership, teamwork, and communication skills that help young people succeed in all areas of their lives.

This year’s Sochi Winter Games and Paralympic Games provide a good example of sports diplomacy.  Ironically, Russia’s action in the Ukraine could violate the Olympic Truce to suspend hostilities -- just as it did during the 2008 Summer Olympics, when Georgia and Russia fought over the Georgian province of South Ossetia.

Sports diplomacy is just one of many ways that the U.S. government follows U.S. law as regulated by the Fulbright Hays Act of 1961. This act requires the U.S. government to increase mutual understanding between the people of the U.S. and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange, and thus to assist in the development of peaceful relations between the United States and the other countries of the world.

To fulfill this mandate, the U.S. Department of State has created the SportsUnited Division, which has involved thousands of people from around the world in sports exchanges. The Mansfield Center is honored to have been awarded the first SportsUnited grant in the state to manage an exchange between Montana and China.

Caught in a complicated cycle in which economic pressures have resulted in millions of left-behind youth, and reduced opportunity for those with disabilities and from ethnic minority groups, youth engagement through sports is a rare opportunity for such populations in China.  As a result, our project is designed to make a difference for these underserved populations.  We reach out to youth by increasing the professional capacity of those who design and manage youth sports programs in China, with a focus on soccer, traditional Native games, and adaptive sport for youth with disabilities. 

We have developed an expert team to represent Montana in traveling to China later this month.  Molly Blair and Tucker Miller will represent the expertise of the University of Montana in health and human performance and wellness.  Glenn Moffatt of Paxson Elementary School and Jason Shearer of the Missoula Family YMCA, have daily experience working with youth of differing abilities.  Le Ann Dolly-Powell, of Special Olympics Montana, will take the lead on unifying youth, regardless of ability, in affordable, inclusive sports experiences. Paul Phillips of Salish Kootenai College will draw on his expertise running Native games to assist partners in resurrecting tribal games, recognizing these games’ importance to cultural values, native language, health, and the overall well-being of Native families. 

We’re honored that this team of professionals is willing to travel to China for three weeks to share their knowledge. In return, they’ll be selecting eight Chinese sports professionals to visit western Montana this fall, and share their skills with our community.

Our namesake Mike Mansfield understood the value of sports diplomacy.  In November 1984, as U.S. Ambassador to Japan, he invited the UM football team to Tokyo to play against Army before a crowd of 50,000 people. As the New York Times reported at the time, “…At the final gun, the crowd did not leave.  They pressed around the fences where the players stood and reached out to shake their hands....This was the final college game for Tom Rutt, a Montana offensive tackle, and now he looked around the stadium, at the crowd that would not leave and the regard with which it held the players and said, ''This is the most spectacular thing I've ever had in my life.''

On behalf of the Mansfield Center, I’m Deena Mansour.