Sports exchange programs could be one way to bridge the political gap between the U.S. and Russia. The model for such programs would be the “ping pong diplomacy” initiative that brought the U.S. and China closer together in the early 1970s.

Hockey can serve as an effective instrument to erode some of the negative cultural conditioning citizens from Russia and the U.S. have been exposed to. Photo: RIA Novosti / Alexey Filippov

One may have to go back over 30 years to find a time in history when U.S.-Russia relations have been as chilly as they currently are. The tense relationship is not beneficial for either nation or the international community as a whole. Thus, ideas which could improve the current situation and set it on a better footing for future generations should be welcomed.

Over the years, people-to-people exchanges have been beneficial at bridging the cultural gaps between citizens of nations around the world. These types of exchanges have the potential to change perceptions, something that is vital for warming the U.S.-Russia relationship.

People-to-people exchanges centering on university students and professors or healthcare professionals have proven useful in regards to their application to U.S. relations with China. These types of exchanges should certainly be considered, but it may be helpful to get more creative with exchanges dealing with the U.S.-Russia relationship. Building off the recent success of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Russia and the U.S. could use sports as a tool to develop effective people-to-people exchanges.

David ArnettFor example, during the early 1970s, elite U.S. table tennis players were invited to China to take part in a table tennis exhibition match, which became known as “ping pong diplomacy.” The event paved the way for President Nixon’s visit to Beijing and Chinese Premier Chou En-lai later said, “Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy.” Nixon was even so bold as to refer to the exhibition as “the week that changed the world.”

With President Obama and President Putin both being avid sports fans, an athletic exchange program seems like a non-threatening type of program both administrations could easily endorse. Changing perceptions through a soccer ball or hockey puck may be more effective than any type of professional or academic exchange.

Disagreements based on national preferences or teachings are less likely to arise on the soccer pitch or hockey rink than in a classroom or professional setting. Setting aside differences based on national politics and focusing on similarities and paths towards cooperation is where the value in people-to-people exchanges lies. Thus, sports are an effective tool because they represent a language both sides share. Sports are sports no matter if they are played in St. Petersburg or Chicago.

Similar to exchanges where students from differing countries trade seats in a classroom, sports exchanges could function in much the same way. Young athletes from each country could be exchanged from the U.S. and Russia to attend sports camps set up in each country. Additionally, teams representing the two nations could be scheduled to compete against each other in exhibitions similar to the U.S.-China table tennis match in the 1970s.

The beauty of sport is that it has the power to transcend all racial, ethnic or religious boundaries. Anyone attending a World Cup match or a basketball game at the Summer Olympics is likely to cheer for their native homeland. However, fans who watch a U.S. soccer team square off against a Russian team are immediately reminded of how similar they are to those halfway around the world. Political or ideological differences do not matter to the players in the field of play or many of the fans in the stands.

It may only last for 90 minutes, but during that time, all those involved in the event are not viewing the other side as a geopolitical rival, only a rival on the pitch. The value of tearing down negative perceptions, even if only for 90 minutes at a time, must be recognized. With media outlets in both the U.S. and Russia typically portraying the other in an unpleasant light, sports can serve as an effective instrument to erode some of the negative cultural conditioning citizens from each nation have been exposed to.

It is certainly unlikely any type of people-to-people exchange will cause policy makers in Russia or the U.S. to reach an agreement over any of their current areas of contention. But setting up successful exchanges between the two nations now will pay dividends for future generations and, hopefully, help to warm the presently chilly relationship.

A young Russian hockey player who has the chance to spend a few months in Minnesota playing with an elite youth team will likely grow up with a much more positive perception of Americans than if he or she was never exposed to American culture and was left to form beliefs on the U.S. based on reports from Russian media outlets. Changing the perceptions of only a handful of youth players at a time may not seem significant, but it is a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, there is not a “silver bullet” that can change the frosty U.S.-Russia relationship, but exchange programs can certainly warm the situation on a person-to-person scale. Sport is such a universal language and has, in the past, bridged significant gaps between nations whose politics were significantly misaligned. By creating a program which enables a youth hockey team from Moscow to play a team in Los Angeles, or a high school soccer team from Boston to play a match in Sochi, both Russia and the U.S. would be well served. Similar to “ping pong diplomacy,” the U.S. and Russia could be successful in engaging in “hockey puck” or “soccer ball diplomacy.”

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.