University of Edinburgh: Sport as Soft Power








Adapted for The Huffington Post from the academic conference speech.

Last week I saw the terrific Commonwealth Games international cultural programme wrapped around the 2014 Glasgow Games. At the same time – thanks to the University of Edinburgh – I met with political, sports and academic leaders to discuss what big sporting events can do for your country.

For me it’s simple: sport is one of the universal languages which connect people and cultures. Whether it’s maths, music, science, the arts – or, increasingly these days, English – humanity has many universal languages, which can bring people together whatever their differences.

I never cease to be amazed that wherever you are, in whatever circumstances, you can almost always get a conversation going with one of humanity’s universal languages, especially where otherwise there might be misunderstanding and mistrust.

Of course not everyone is spontaneously united by the ‘scientific method’. And some cultures don’t ‘do’ the performing arts. There are horses for different cultural courses.

And certainly when it comes to sport, different countries have different traditions – for example, I learnt a few years back that Iran and Bulgaria share a deep love of wrestling and weightlifting along with the red white and green of their flags: the reasons no doubt lost in the mists of antiquity.

In some countries sports are simple, in others monumentally complex, with books of rules and lockers full of equipment. Perhaps how you run your sports says something about how you run your country.

Remarkable then that American Football enforces an almost communist egalitarianism, with the best players drafted to the worst teams so every city gets to win – though studies have shown that this is, in fact, a profit-maximising strategy; so perhaps it’s not so un-American after all…

But whatever the differences, every culture runs, throws things and kicks stuff – and most trade punches too.

Sport is primal, basic, essential and everywhere. So what can it do for your culture? At the British Council we have run major sport-based programmes for many years to bring people together, teaching them life skills and helping them with their education and English.

Our biggest was International Inspiration, the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games’ international sporting legacy programme which reached over 15 million young people in 21 countries, inspired 45 significant policy changes and linked 590 schools in the UK and worldwide – as well as securing 300+ safe spaces to play sport in partner countries. Commonwealth Class is doing some of the same things for the Commonwealth Games.

Two of our most successful partnerships are with the Premier League and Premiership Rugby, using both football and rugby to train coaches, spread teamwork and bring hope from favelas to refugee camps – as well as English and opportunity in dozens of countries worldwide. Burma is the latest country to join Premier Skills.

So sport is all good? Well, not entirely. Let’s not forget decades of cold war competition by proxy – plus drugs, cheating, match-fixing and hooliganism. But when it’s done right, with the right values, few things connect people better than the great sporting moments and tournaments, which bring many thousands together, often in strange lands, to compete, spectate, hope and enjoy.

And indeed sometimes to stay. A Scottish colleague of mine told me you can still find the odd English taxi driver in Mexico City who’d flown out one-way for the 1970 World Cup. Go for the footie, stay for life. And Scotland’s Tartan Army has cheerfully carried the saltire all over Europe.

And that matters because, when all is said and done, building cultural relations between countries is a ‘contact sport’ – you have to go, meet, see and do things together to make friends and build lasting trust with other people and peoples.

So sport and great sporting events are a massive draw. But the best of all is when sport is shared alongside culture. And here Glasgow excelled – with arts, literature, education and real opportunity for young people. In everything I saw in Glasgow, culture shone bright.

I didn’t get to see a moment of the sport; but I did see civic pride, creativity, teamwork and quality in every bit of Glasgow life. And everyone who went, from the many countries who took part, cannot fail to carry golden memories of Glasgow 2014.