The Sports Visitor Program described on its website as “sports- themed programs” that offer the opportunity to interact with Americans and experience American culture and values. U.S. Missions around the globe select non-elite athletes and coaches to attend the two weeks program, which includes sessions on: “nutrition, strength and conditioning, gender equity in sport, sport and disability and team building.” Also there is emphasis on the visitors’ development of personal action plans for when they return home.
Past events of the programs included Mobility International USA (MIUSA) collaborating with the Pyunic Armenian Association for the Disabled and the Agate Center for Women with Special Needs in Armenia in a two-way exchange program. And Sports United hosting a Sports Visitor soccer program for coaches from Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen.
Although trying to remain apolitical, sport has always been a part of international relations, for better (US-China Ping-Pong diplomacy), or for worse (the Honduras-El Salvador Football War). Sport diplomacy as a whole, and this specific program do have merits, as sport is a common language everywhere. It may not be food and medical care but sport can act as a helpful public diplomacy tool.
The U.S. is a leading force in almost all of sports and some American athletes are global icons. The U.S. also has a solid recreational sport culture and infrastructure, which most country could only wish for. That is why, brining non-elite athletes to the states and engaging with them at their countries utilizes the U.S. position as a sports role model, and shows a positive side of the country. Plus, a positive experience for this athletes mean they will have something positive to say about the U.S. back home. And if one of these non-elites will become great, and share the positive experience then that is just gravy for U.S. public diplomacy, as it earned a public figure in favor of the U.S.
With that being said, it is hard to see how young men and women from the Middle East, South America and Africa forget about U.S. actions or non-actions, all thanks to a game of soccer. How can a coach from Yemen or Athlete from Venezuela see this trip to the U.S. for nothing more than a trip when U.S. actions affect their family and country?
A lot can be said against the goal of exposing the visitor to U.S. culture. Does that mean that U.S. culture is the right one? Does it mean the people over at the State Department would want to see U.S. culture spreading through sports? Some could say this is just another way for the U.S to try and Americanize the world. Another point is the reference to American values, will a program like this lead change in gender equality in the Middle East? Probably not, and that is without even pointing the irony of talking nutrition pointers from one of the most obis countries in the world.
The use of sports diplomacy by the U.S. could lead to positive results, but exchange programs are very limited in scope, hopefully the U.S. will gain a few more “ambassadors” around the world, which is something that is not to be disregarded.