Those who cling to the notion that sports and politics should not mix must be having palpitations. The Prime Minister wants to send the All Blacks to China to further boost links with this country's biggest trading partner. The All Blacks' coach, Steve Hansen, seems ready to go along with this bit of sports diplomacy despite his team's congested schedule. Clearly, we have come a long way since 1981 when the separation of sport and politics reached its apogee with the tumultuous Springbok tour. Yet there is reason to be just a little cautious about how far we should go.
Sports diplomacy has been pushed first and foremost by the United States. It gained momentum with the success of its ping-pong diplomacy with China in the 1970s.
This exchange of table tennis players led to State Department programmes, promoted through US embassies, based on the belief that the universal passion for sport was a way to transcend socio-cultural differences. Sportspeople and nations, so the theory goes, can be introduced to each other without the economic, political and military issues that burden traditional diplomacy.
The American approach has been backed by the likes of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who says "sport is a language everyone of us can speak". This has encouraged an increasing recognition of its power as a tool in countries' public diplomacy.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
Not acknowledged to anything like the same extent is sport's ability to create divisions. Most infamously, the hurling of insults and roughing up of fans at a qualifying match for soccer's 1970 World Cup between El Salvador and Honduras sparked a shortlived war between the two countries.
In that case, sport solidified an existing division. But it is also possible for it to taint previously strong relationships. Take the aftermath at prime ministerial level of Trevor Chappell's under-arm delivery, the final act of a one-day cricket international between Australia and New Zealand. Or the collateral damage to relations between France and Ireland arising from the goal orchestrated by Thierry Henry's so-called Hand of Frog during a 2009 World Cup qualification play-off.
China will be far from surprised over New Zealand using the All Blacks as a diplomatic tool. Subsequent to ping-pong diplomacy, Beijing has become accustomed to using sport to further its own ends.
Part of this was its contribution of many millions of dollars to improving cricket facilities in the West Indies. The objective there was the reversal of Caribbean nations' recognition of Taiwan.
The way that sport can be used obviously did not escape John Key's notice during his time as an investment banker in the US. Previously, he has taken former All Blacks Michael Jones and Va'iga Tuigamala on a trip around the Pacific and former Black Caps captain Stephen Fleming to India. When he was greeted with a haka by a rugby team at the China Agriculture University, the potential must have seemed obvious.
Already, the All Blacks are accustomed to playing matches to promote rugby in new markets. Last year, it was Japan. Previously, it has been Hong Kong, while the US looms as a future port of call.
So, too, at the Prime Minister's request, does China for a role of more fundamental importance to New Zealand. Woe betide that any on-field or off-field mishap affects our rapidly blossoming trading relationship with that country.