Opening photo: Olympic Gold Medalist sprinter DeeDee Trotter in Japan, February 2020. Photo courtesy of Embassy Tokyo

By Jay Aprea, Matthew Ferner, Kalisha Holmes, Ashleigh Huffman, PhD., Ryan Murphy, and Caleb Seamon

The Sports Diplomacy Division’s programs tap into the shared global passion for sports to support U.S. foreign policy priorities. While the United States leveraged the power of sports even before the ping pong diplomacy era, the Sports Diplomacy Division—formerly SportsUnited—was established in 2002 in the wake of 9/11 to reach youth in the Middle East through soccer. Housed in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) Office of Citizen Exchanges, the Sports Diplomacy Division fulfills the mandate outlined in the Fulbright-Hays Act to promote mutual understanding through shared educational and cultural interests for the promotion of friendly relations between the United States and other countries. Sports provide a unique avenue for the Department of State to open doors in hard-to-reach places, and engage communities at the grassroots level. When leveraged thoughtfully and strategically, sports serve as a platform for the United States to champion key foreign policy priorities. These priorities include gender equality, disability rights, youth empowerment, climate change, racial equity, inclusion, health, wellness, and entrepreneurship. 

The Sports Diplomacy Division team meets up for an outdoor, socially distanced gathering, April 2021. From left: Program Coordinator Jay Aprea, Program Officer Ashleigh Huffman, Program Officer Kalisha Holmes, former-Program Officer Trina Bolton, Program Officer Matt Ferner, former-Division Chief Matt McMahon, former-Virtual Student Federal Service Intern Kenna King, and Program Officer Ryan Murphy. Photo courtesy of the Sports Diplomacy Division
The Sports Diplomacy Division team meets up for an outdoor, socially distanced gathering, April 2021. From left: Program Coordinator Jay Aprea, Program Officer Ashleigh Huffman, Program Officer Kalisha Holmes, former-Program Officer Trina Bolton, Program Officer Matt Ferner, former-Division Chief Matt McMahon, former-Virtual Student Federal Service Intern Kenna King, and Program Officer Ryan Murphy. Photo courtesy of the Sports Diplomacy Division

The Sports Diplomacy Division executes programming through four primary pillars: the Sports Visitor programthe Sports Envoy program, the International Sports Programming Initiative (ISPI), and the Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP)—which includes the espnW GSMP to empower women (a partnership with espnW) and the Sport for Community GSMP on disability rights. Together these programs have directly reached thousands of participants from all regions of the world, utilizing the full spectrum of sports.

In coordination with other Department bureaus, the Sports Diplomacy Division also contributes to special initiatives around mega-sporting events, sports and human rights, and sports policy with the mission of advancing democratic values, leveling the playing field for marginalized people, and promoting equality and diversity.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Sports Diplomacy programming to go virtual in March 2020, which the team has embraced as a way to reach new audiences. The Sports Diplomacy Division has used digital outreach to engage new populations with sports diplomacy messaging, from alumni engagements and virtual coaching certification programs, to massive online fitness and foreign policy sessions. During the spring and summer of 2020, the Sports Diplomacy Division invited athletes to participate in a weekly series hosted on the Sports Diplomacy Facebook page dubbed “GET FIT.” During this live series, exchange alumni shared their tips for staying mentally and physically fit at a time when most parts of the world were in lockdown. The series ultimately reached 380,000 total viewers in more than two dozen countries, with an average reach of 50,000 viewers per episode. GET FIT athletes focused on global health priorities during the global pandemic, such as mental health and suicide prevention, while also showcasing creative ways to stay in physical shape during a global lockdown.

Participants of the Belgium Adaptive Martial Arts Coaches Sports Visitor program, March 2020. Photo courtesy of FHI 360
Participants of the Belgium Adaptive Martial Arts Coaches Sports Visitor program, March 2020. Photo courtesy of FHI 360

The break in physical in-person exchange programming also allowed the Sports Diplomacy Division to create robust alumni programming. As a result, the team worked hand-in-hand with implementing partners to develop several asynchronous courses and webinar series for alumni of the International Sports Programming Initiative, Sports Visitor, and Global Sports Mentoring programs.  These virtual seminars brought in world-class leaders and speakers from across the sports sector to present on trauma-informed coaching, mental health, and mindfulness; inclusion and anti-discrimination; entrepreneurship and sports program implementation; coaching techniques and methodologies; and adaptive sports.   

Paralympian Chris Waddell (center) discusses his unassisted summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro with students in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania, December 2019. Photo courtesy of Embassy Dar es Salaam
Paralympian Chris Waddell (center) discusses his unassisted summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro with students in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania, December 2019. Photo courtesy of Embassy Dar es Salaam

Mega sporting events remain a crucial platform for demonstrating the value of the Sports Diplomacy Division’s work, making the delayed 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games a key priority. The team hosted various virtual events, podcasts, film screenings, and social media campaigns during the rescheduled Games. In coordination with the Office of the Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary, the Sports Diplomacy Division supported a new podcast series on professional athletes and the role of technology in athletic performance. The Sports Diplomacy Division partnered with the National Museum of American Diplomacy for a special “Diplomacy After Hours” with sports historian and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture curator Damion Thomas, and Paralympian, ECA exchange alumnus, and Persian Gulf veteran John Register. This special exhibit shines a light on the intersection of sport and social change, especially at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. In August, the Sports Diplomacy Division offered a special film screening and panel discussion to celebrate one of the most iconic American Olympians of all time, Muhammad Ali, in partnership with the City of Louisville and the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism. 

In Brazil, American female rugby players demonstrate touch rugby through the Women Win Foundation/Girls Rugby Inc. International Sports Programming Initiative program, March 2020. Photo courtesy of Women Win Foundation
In Brazil, American female rugby players demonstrate touch rugby through the Women Win Foundation/Girls Rugby Inc. International Sports Programming Initiative program, March 2020. Photo courtesy of Women Win Foundation

When it is safe to do so, and after consultation with posts, regional bureaus, and ECA leadership, the Sports Diplomacy Division is cautiously exploring a return to in-person programming. Over the next 12 months, the team will release new calls for proposals slating an eventual return to in-person programming in 2022. In the meantime, the Sports Diplomacy Division continues to coordinate innovative virtual programs in alignment with U.S. embassy and consulate priorities. 

The power of sports is visible now more than ever. As a universal language, sports are at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy efforts worldwide. The Sports Diplomacy Division will continue to showcase the potential of sport and reconnect with its partners through in-person programming in the near future.

Jay Aprea is a program coordinator; Matthew Ferner is a program officer; Kalisha Holmes is a program officer; Ashleigh Huffman, PhD. is a program officer; Ryan Murphy is a program officer; and Caleb Seamon is a summer intern in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Sports Diplomacy Division. 

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