Lessons in International Relations
The sports community, with its global interconnectedness and appeal to diverse audiences, can breed powerful social change.
Bill Smith’s favorite example of the two realms overlapping is when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) used its leverage to help end apartheid in South Africa. In 1964, the IOC withdrew its invitation to the country and in 1970, it officially expelled South Africa from competing in the Games. This led to an official declaration against apartheid in sports and contributed to the end of that nation’s racially charged political system in 1991.
Smith’s passion lies at this intersection of sports and international affairs, where a positive narrative nearly always exists alongside the negative. Having grown up watching ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” during the Cold War era, the sports-politics relationship has long existed for Smith, who chairs UI’s International Studies Program and directs the Martin Institute — a center that provides cross-curricular research opportunities for undergraduates to better understand the international system.
Following the controversy surrounding the systemic state-sponsored doping among the 2016 Russian Olympic team, Smith gave interviews to such national newspapers as The New York Times and USA Today on the positive tale that emerged: The IOC gave the World Anti-Doping Agency increased authority to resolve the issue and sanction non-compliant federations. It was a subplot that counterbalanced the scandal.
Historically, Smith said, sports have also allowed smaller, more obscure states entry onto a global stage, along with the ability to gain respect that might not be granted if not for their athletic abilities.
Moreover, nations under scrutiny for human rights violations, such as South Africa, might change course when pressured by the international community via sporting boycotts.
Of course, people can’t always pay attention to politics through sports, Smith noted.
“When sports federations tried to get the Taliban to quit murdering people in Afghanistan through sport, it didn’t work,” he said. “The same is true in Syria. Since sports don’t fit into those societies the same way, the result of exclusion is not as impactful. But there are some times and places when it works really well.”
This interdisciplinary nature of issues like those presented in sports intrigues Smith the most — in his personal research and in developing opportunities for students, such as the Martin Institute’s UNESCO Research Program, which brings together students from various degree-seeking programs. Students first learn about the work done by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and then complete a research paper and presentation related to the organization’s mission to “build peace in the minds of men and women.”
Recent research projects have centered on international norms for repatriating stolen cultural artifacts; the differences between global women’s rights and cultural rights, like female genital mutilation; and governments that punish citizens who abandon state-sponsored religions.
Smith encourages students to pursue an area of research they’re passionate about, just as he’s pursued what influences him.
“What I love most of all is sports and international relations,” said Smith, who won the Excellence in Teaching Award in 2016. “But that’s my thing. Students have their own ideas about what they want to do. They’re people who understand the other’s perspective and appreciate it. Maybe they still decide to go against that perspective. But at least they know where the other side’s coming from and they don’t dismiss it.”