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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Our ambassadors, revered by the world

By: Dr. Božo Cerar

When we talk about ambassadors, we first think of envoys, state officials who lead diplomatic missions of a country in the world, representing, promoting, and protecting its interests. This is official diplomacy. We also hear other terms, depending on whether we are focusing on its form or approach (e.g., state), content (e.g., energy), method (e.g., bilateral), or means (e.g., sports).

In sports diplomacy, sports are used as a means in diplomatic activities. Countries have quickly recognised the importance of sports in achieving foreign policy goals and using them as diplomatic tools to influence other countries and their public. A typical example is the so-called ping-pong diplomacy, an exchange of table tennis teams between the USA and China. Table tennis is very popular in China, and the Chinese are a powerhouse in the sport. In 1971, the American table tennis team visited China for ten days. This significantly reduced tensions between the two countries, greatly contributing to the resumption of their dialogue and the visit of US President Richard Nixon to China a year later. A similar approach was used by US President Barack Obama during his historic visit to Havana in 2016 when the US baseball team played in Cuba. It goes without saying that baseball is the most popular sport in both countries. It is well known that wealthy Arab countries use the organisation of various high-profile sports events to improve their image in the world and cover up their autocratic rule and human rights abuses. The list goes on.

Athletes (and similarly artists, entrepreneurs, etc.) can contribute to the recognition of their country and to its sympathy and reputation, especially if they are successful, even if their country had little to do with it. This is called citizen diplomacy. The benefits for the country are diverse and significant, provided it is able to seize the opportunities.

Such diplomacy by individual successful citizens can best be illustrated by my conversation along the route of the final stage of the Giro d’Italia, not far from the Roman Colosseum, which the cyclists circled several times. A man with his family to my left asked me where I was from. From the land of the winner, Pogačar, I replied. His face broke into a wide smile. He was from Barcelona, Spain. Vuelta, I nodded to him. Roglič, he replied. Although he was a fan of Barcelona, he knew that Jan Oblak, the goalkeeper of Atletico Madrid, also came from Slovenia. The man with his wife on my right was from the US state of Virginia, not far from the US capital, Washington. Although a fan of the local NBA team, the Wizards, he knew about the Slovenian Luka Dončić, a star of the Dallas Mavericks. An Italian man behind me joined the conversation. He eagerly explained the Slovenian school of cycling, which should be studied and emulated. Since I knew nothing about this, I just eagerly nodded.

THERE WERE TIMES WHEN SLOVENIANS WERE DERIDED WITH THE SCORNFUL TERM SCHIAVI IN TRIESTE. THIS TIME, HOWEVER, THE MAIN ITALIAN DAILY NEWSPAPER, CORRIERE DELLA SERA, DECLARED THE SLOVENIAN POGAČAR THE KING OF ROME ON ITS FRONT PAGE.

At home, we often do not fully realise what the successes of the aforementioned and other Slovenian athletes mean for us and for Slovenia. If I stick only to the Giro d’Italia. Few Slovenians can boast of a close encounter with the state leadership of neighbouring Italy. Last year, the winner’s trophy was presented to Roglič by the President of the country, Sergio Mattarella, and this year, to Pogačar by Prime Minister Georgia Meloni. The three-week Giro d’Italia, with the final ceremony in the centre of Rome, was broadcast live by the Italian public television RAI. Cycling is an extremely important sport in Italy, and cyclists like Coppi, Pantani, Nibali, etc., who won the Giro in the past, are national heroes. It was not just the extraordinary sporting achievements of our cyclists, but much more. Much more than our official diplomacy has managed, with perhaps the exception of our former President Borut Pahor. The contribution to the enhancement of Slovenia’s reputation and that of Slovenians in Italian society is enormous. Pogačar did not win the sympathies of Italians only as an exceptional cyclist, a phenomenon, as sports journalists called him, who won by a large margin. He was admired not only for his combativeness and readiness for action at any moment. He also impressed them as a person with his attitude towards fellow competitors and spectators of the race, especially the youngest. At first, I thought he had reached this kind of pinnacle with the gesture I saw during the Eurosport broadcast. He gave his winning pink jersey to young Italian competitor Giulio Pellizzari, who was already celebrating his first stage win when Pogačar overtook him a few hundred meters before the finish. The Italian had only asked for his glasses, which his younger brother had wanted. A gesture that also moved the TV reporters. According to Urbano Cairo, President of the powerful Rcs Media Group, however, one other gesture will be recorded as the highlight of this year’s Giro d’Italia. As he climbed the steep Monte Grappa, he gave his water bottle to a boy on the side of the road. Those present at the closing ceremony and the award presentation under the walls of the symbol of Rome, the Colosseum, and viewers in front of their TV screens also noticed that Pogačar came to the winner’s podium with our flag and sang along to our anthem, just as Roglič did the year before. There were times when Slovenians were derided with the scornful term schiavi in Trieste. This time, however, the main Italian daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera, declared the Slovenian Pogačar the king of Rome on its front page.

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