When sports diplomacy fails to play cupid


In November 1971, several Malaysian table tennis players competed in an invitational tournament in Beijing, China.

It was a very different Beijing back then – roads filled with thousands of bicycles in a city with hardly any highrise buildings.

However, the Afro-Asian Friendship Invitational Tournament was China’s way of reaching out to the world as the communist republic tried to break political barriers and boundaries through ping-pong diplomacy.

Sports and politics are often seen as a bad connotation. But for China, table tennis mixed with the intention to establish ties with other nations shook the world as the recipe turned out to be an exciting ‘baijiu cocktail’.

Today, almost every product you own is made in China.

There have been numerous efforts in the name of sports diplomacy to strengthen ties between nations.

The two Koreas – technically still at war – have united through sports. This was evident at the 2000 Sydney, 2004 Athens and 2006 Turin Olympics.

At last year’s Asian Games in Indonesia, North and South Korea competed as a unified team in basketball, dragonboat racing and rowing.

Sports diplomacy can be traced back to the 9th century BC in Ancient Greece where the tradition of the ‘Ekecheiria’ (truce) was established by the signature of a treaty by three kings. During the truce period, athletes, artists, families and pilgrims could travel in safety to participate or attend the Olympics and return to their respective nations.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), in July 2000, established the International Olympic Truce Foundation with the aim to promote the ancient Greek tradition of truce and initiate conflict prevention and resolution through sport, culture and the Olympic ideals.

But such ideals only look pretty on paper – evident as Malaysia banned Israeli para athletes from competing in the 9th World Para Swimming Championships swimming competition scheduled for July 29 to Aug 4 in Kuching, Sarawak.

Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah told Twentytwo13 on Jan 14: “The current status is straightforward; we will not host (events) if we know there is an Israeli team or organisation involved.”

The Cabinet’s decision not to issue visas to the Israeli para swimmers for the 2020 Paralympics qualifying event has angered certain quarters, namely the IOC, International Paralympic Committee and the Israelis.

A spokesperson from the Israeli Foreign Ministry went on to label Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as anti-Semitic. This coming from a nation that has been condemned by many for severely discriminating against the Palestinians.

In retaliation, Saifuddin said he was “deeply disgusted” by the accusations of the Israeli spokesperson, adding the Zionist nation had no right to talk about moral values as it continued to disregard the rights of the Palestinians and that “Malaysia has and will always be a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause”.

But there are those who mocked the episode, highlighting how Malaysia while being sympathetic over the Palestinian cause seemed to disregard similar discrimination practised by Myanmar and China against the Rohingya and the Muslim Uighur minority respectively.

In fact, the Rohingya community in Malaysia remains stateless – children unable to attend schools while the adults are unable to gain employment legally or seek medical attention as they do not possess any formal documentation issued by the Malaysian government.

Malaysia does not have diplomatic ties with Israel but is reported to enjoy “a booming but discreet trade relationship”. Some Malaysians have also organised trips to Jerusalem.

Political ideologies aside, such visa bans will strain the relationship among the national and international sporting bodies. As such, organisers of world meets will simply stay away from Malaysia to avoid similar episodes in the future.

Sanctions and penalties could be slapped on the national associations as well – as stated in the governing federations’ regulations.

Sports has often been seen as the bridge connecting communities through equality, fairplay and being colour blind.

As leaders in Malaysia and Israel continue to turn their backs on each other, it is evident sports diplomacy, in this instance, failed to play cupid for the people of both nations to come together in the name of sports.