Sport can be 'soft' power for Scotland

Written by Grant Jarvie, Stuart Murray and Stuart MacDonald on 7 February 2017 in Comment

Scotland's politicians fail to acknowledge the value of sport as a tool in international development, sub state diplomacy and cultural relations, argues Professor Grant Jarvie, Professor Stuart Murray and Stuart MacDonald

Sport can play a major role in boosting Scotland’s influence abroad, and help cement international relations, while influencing diplomacy and foreign policy.

The potential is there to use sport to improve international relations and development, and what the Scottish Government needs to do is to elevate sport’s role on the global stage.

The Scottish Government has failed to take advantage of the opportunities provided by sports’ global currency, and in our recent report on the subject, we identify six priorities for a successful Scottish sporting strategy:

  1. The need to clarify Scotland’s position on sports’ global stage;
  2. A relevant network topography to ensure co-ordinated sports delivery amongst different agencies;
  3. The establishment of a working group to better leverage sport for the benefit of all;
  4. To work out how Scottish sports diplomacy can boost international activities;
  5. To adopt strategies tried and tested in other countries;
  6. To collaborate effectively with the British Council

Sport, culture, external relations, international development can be combined in a single coordinated strategy embracing both and Scottish Government and European portfolios.

There needs to be a new language around sport and cultural relations, and the Scottish political establishment needs to investigate the diplomatic potential of sport and its real value as a low-cost, high profile tool for external relations.

Look at the experience of Australia, where there is a dedicated four-year sports diplomacy strategy. Something similar in Scotland could give the country greater influence, more effective cultural relations, increased connectivity, stronger partnerships, added value from the sport spend and another opportunity to showcase Scotland abroad.

In spite of Scotland’s strong sporting traditions, there is little or no debate on Scotland’s role within the world of global sport.  Although Scots have held influential positions from time to time there is no specified allocation of representation. And Scotland is missing a trick by not using prominent and successful athletes like Katherine Grainger, Ian McGeechan, Michael Jamieson, Andrew Murray and Eve Muirhead to enhance Scotland’s profile abroad.

The Scottish Government’s decision to cut the sport budget is very disappointing. Compared with the uplift in sports’ spending in England and Wales and Northern Ireland, the Scottish Government cut the sport budget drastically post 2015-16.

And where does sport feature in the collective voice of the country’s political parties? They have had little new to say about sport. It is a failure to acknowledge its value as a tool in international development, sub state diplomacy and cultural relations especially when the UN placed sport for development and peace on a statutory footing.

Sport matters in the global, plural twenty-first century not simply because nations can create influence and status within sport but more importantly nations can create influence through sport.

Given the nature of current challenges, soft power, a revised understanding of the nature and role of Scottish diplomacy, and effective, concomitant cultural relations are critical to securing influence, trust, mutual understanding and connectivity.

Sport is a powerful and universal language that, if harnessed, can build comity in the place of estrangement, and unite disparate nations and publics through mutual affinities.

Sports diplomacy can also strengthen old and new relationships, and increase the brand of a nation as a modern, innovative and friendly place for investment, or simply a place to visit. Sports diplomacy is not necessarily axiomatic with the state, and smaller nations and sub-states need to be bold and innovative in how they attract trade, tourists and publics.

Marrying tried and tested soft power means such as sports diplomacy to Scotland’s powerful brand, culture and values, is one dynamic way to do so.

Grant Jarvie is professor and director of the Academy of Sport, University of Edinburgh, Stuart Murray is an adviser to Australian Government and associate professor, Bond University, and Stuart MacDonald is the former associate director of the Institute for International Cultural Relations, University of Edinburgh, and a former UK and Scottish senior civil servant

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