Sports and U.S. foreign relations




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Oxford University Press



Peer reviewed



Against the long-standing claim that sport and politics should remain separate, the United States has long included sport within its broader foreign relations efforts. SinceDuring the second half of the nineteenth century American businessmen, members of the military, and missionaries all taught local populations how to play sports like baseball and basketball because they viewed their actions as part of the “civilizing mission” of Americans abroad. With the onset of the Cold War, the government began incorporating sport into its formal programs to promote the United States overseas, using athletes as a large part of its public diplomacy efforts. Federal programs related to physical education were implemented to improve American health in the interests of fighting the Soviet Union. Sport thus served a role in the global competition of the Cold War as well as contributing to building bridges with other states. In the twenty-first century the government formalized the use of sport within public diplomacy efforts with the establishment of a bureaucracy focused solely on sport. Sport also provided an avenue to spread American culture overseas as a model for organizing events and the approach to marketing and sponsorship. Both the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games and Nike’s contract with basketball player Michael Jordan established new forms of cultural capitalism. American professional teams have capitalized on their global interest by holding exhibition and regular-season games overseas, bringing an American sport experience to international audiences while simultaneously expanding marketing opportunities.



sport, Olympic Games, Cold War, U.S. foreign relations, public diplomacy, physical fitness


Dichter, Heather L. (2023) Sports and U.S. foreign relations. In: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Ed. Jane Dailey. New York: Oxford University Press,


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Research Institute

Institute of History