Wales’s remarkable sporting success is an international foot in the door

Creating a sport diplomacy strategy could leverage Wales’s sporting success into trading and tourism opportunities, writes Owen Hathway


Across different sectors in Wales there is a growing consideration to how we can maximise our influence and appeal on the world stage. 


The Welsh Government has recently closed its consultation on a new international strategy, and with the shifting landscapes of Brexit on the horizon, there has never been a more important time for this agenda to be given focus.  There has also never been a more compelling case to make sport a key aspect of this work.


Soft power, or cultural diplomacy, takes many forms, has many purposes and can be delivered by many different people and organisations, but sport remains one of the most visible and powerful instruments within Wales’s toolkit.


We do not have to look far for international recognition through sport.  A nation of just 3.1m people has produced a Tour de France winner; footballers playing across Europe’s top leagues, a rugby team reaching world number one status and in Hannah Mills, Lauren Price, Jade Jones and Elinor Barker four new female world champions in 2019 alone.


If anyone needs convincing of how sport can be a gateway for cultural diplomacy, they need only to have seen South Africa’s Siya Kolisi becoming the first black captain to pick up the Webb Ellis trophy. His story, of rugby as a vehicle of hope delivering him from poverty to triumph on a global scale, spoke to a new opportunity of unity through sport.


Our own Alun Wyn Jones, in exiting the World Cup, spoke with dignity and warmth about the host nation that did more for Welsh-Japanese relations than a department of diplomats would otherwise be able to achieve. Equally Japan, in staging a major sporting occasion, has successfully utilised the soft power of sport for its international relationships and reputation.


Of course, soft power through sport is more than a nation’s sporting achievements. As far as cultural diplomacy is concerned, sporting success is the foot through the door to delivering a dialogue which leads to better trading relationships and international relations. Other nations are actively seeking to exploit these links and there are lessons to be learnt from what is being done elsewhere.


A strong element of the Australian Sport Diplomacy strategy is an emphasis on sharing its societal values through its sporting relationships. Their strategy, a world leader in its approach, recognises the way sport can bring international communities together to establish global trading opportunities as well as enhancing their influence on their region.  


That is an aspiration Wales can emulate, and indeed it was encouraging to hear the Minister for International Relations at a recent soft power conference note that she wishes to showcase Welsh values as part of the international strategy. This to me is a key opportunity to link sporting success with our wider social ambitions. 


When we marvel at the fact that Geraint Thomas, Gareth Bale and Sam Warburton all went to the same school, we should not miss the trick of using that to highlight Wales’s approach to education.  When we see international eyes turn to Tenby for IronMan Wales or Cardiff for the Half Marathon, we should see it as an opportunity to showcase our language, culture and arts as part of a wider tourism venture.  


When we see athletes like Natalie Powell winning Judo medals at international events, we should use it to communicate the excellent outlook that is being cultivated to support a person-centred approach to elite level performance by some national governing bodies. 


Having a sporting diplomacy approach which centres on the principles of how we win, not just what we win, can really help convey a vibrant, confident and progressive Wales. However, all this needs to be brought together in a strategic way.


The future remains bright for Welsh sport and harnessing that for wider benefits is an opportunity not to be missed.  Building on the success of Wales at the rugby World Cup there are major opportunities heading towards Tokyo 2020 as well as the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham 2022.  


Sport is a key avenue for Welsh cultural diplomacy.  Our sports stars are some of our most recognisable advocates, while our sports followers help create citizen diplomats representing Wales across the globe. 


Developing a specific sport diplomacy strategy is a chance to turn that sporting reputation into a platform for economic, environmental, educational and societal achievement benefitting our nation and beyond.


Photo Credit Commonwealth Games Wales

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Owen Hathway is Head of Insight and Policy at Sport Wales

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