Japan may not have lifted the 2019 Rugby World Cup trophy but as tournament host they won hearts and minds across the globe. APCO Worldwide Executive Director Simon McGee considers the lessons and challenges for governments eager to play the most volatile of games: sports diplomacy.
Tokyo’s soaring double towered metropolitan government headquarters near the sprawling Shinjuku train station is a reminder of the stature and influence of regional government in Japan, where to my surprise I heard that many ambitious types opt for careers in local instead of central government.
It was here in 2017, somewhere near the top of that skyscraper, that I watched then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson sitting down for a bilateral with the most powerful woman in Japanese politics, Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike. Koike wanted to pick Boris’s brain about the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and it was no surprise to see why. Since 2013, when Tokyo had been awarded host city for the 2020 Olympic Games, preparations had gone from bad to worse. Design concerns and ballooning costs for the National Stadium had put it a year behind schedule and plagiarism accusations over the Tokyo Games’ original logo contributed to the resignations of Koike’s two predecessors. Added to these was the suicide of a 23-year-old construction worker on the National Stadium from ‘karoshi’ or death by overwork. The situation was grim. Boris’s advice to Koike was to persevere, focus on tackling each challenge, and doubters would eventually come around.
Two years later and Koike seems to have put the project on track, with this autumn’s spectacular Rugby World Cup proving to have been a successful dry run for next year’s Olympics. So why has Japanseemingly succeeded in sports diplomacy and what are the lessons there and elsewhere for countries eager to exercise their own soft power through sport?
First there are the simple, yet often fiendish, hurdles of organisation and competence. No one rates a country that can’t organise a party. The Rugby World Cup was nowhere near as complex or big as an Olympic Games but the authorities managed to put on a stunning tournament with packed stadiums in spite of Tokyo and much of the country being hit by super typhoon Hagibis, Japan having just finished hosting a year of G20 meetings and the imminent enthronement of a new emperor. The fact that only two rugby matches were cancelled given the scale of the extreme weather event was incredible. Organisers also managed to get the small things right. Anyone who had attended the London 2012 Games would have been familiar with the sight of friendly English-speaking volunteers dishing out advice at confusing railway stations, holding signs for the correct platform to tournament stadiums, and even just high-fiving visitors as they welcomed them to matches. In short, everything worked as it should.
Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for another world competition that took place at the same time as the rugby: the IAAF World Athletics Championship in Qatar. Open air conditioning systems and hydration stations couldn’t prevent marathon athletes dropping out of the competition because of high temperatures, and free tickets couldn’t prevent the embarrassment of near-empty stadiums. Qatar also faced, and continues to face, well-known allegations over it winning the right to host sporting competitions, and about the treatment of migrant workers building stadiums for those competitions, which raises the question of whether it should have even tried its hand at sport diplomacy in the first place. With just under three years to go until the Football World Cup, Qatar at least has time to work on trying to fix some of its problems and delivering a competent tournament.
The moment that lifted rugby’s profile in Japan, and Japan’s profile in world rugby, was the country’s shock victory over South Africain a Brighton stadium during the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Japan failed to replicate that performance in its quarter-final encounter last month but by then Japan’s rugby credentials were firmly established and – crucially for sports diplomacy to be effective – were undeniably authentic. There is no big money in Japanese rugby, certainly no professional league, but the sport is popular in universities and corporations, and ideas at the core of rugby like selflessness and duty to the wider team have appeal. Japanese rugby has also grown organically over decades and is not the result of an expensive overnight government decree. A lack of authenticity is usually deafening in the case of countries which dabble in professional football club ownership in order to seek profile and recognition among followers of the beautiful game. Meanwhile, the involvement of some Middle Eastern countries in horse racing, for example, looks and feels genuine given the Arab peninsula’s affinity with horses. Sports diplomacy needs real roots to grow: AstroTurf is obvious and won’t cut it.
However, what struck me most about the Rugby World Cup was the way that the tournament projected the values of equality, fairness and friendship under, dare I write it, an international (sports) rules-based system. Sitting in the Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo during the Wales-Australiaand England-Argentinamatches, I was surprised and delighted by the sight of the Japanese public – men, women and children – getting behind all the teams. Every non-Japan match featured countless local spectators wearing the colours of either side, turning ordinary Japanese people into global ambassadors for a country that doesn’t always reach out abroad comfortably or fluently. It was sports diplomacy at its best, uniting different people through a universal language rather than using the appeal of sport to seek to disguise or distort. It was so powerful that even age-old antipathies felt soothed by the congenial atmosphere. While on paper the idea of throwing sport supporters together from France, England, Argentina, Georgia, Russiaand the United States might sound like a good recipe for a brawl, the reality was of course the opposite. So, while the Brave Blossoms, as Japan’s national rugby team is known, ignited pride pro patria they also helped to depict Japan as a capable and charming convenor of people and nations.
The trick now is for Japan to turn this emotional response into tangible benefit. Tourism should certainly receive a boost and perhaps a warm, fuzzy feeling will help to sell a little more Japanese food, technology and cartoons. It will provide Koike and officials at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building with some confidence and breathing space – although it would be deeply unwise to count any chickens just yet. The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games attracted an estimated 680,000 foreign visitors and Tokyo can expect similar numbers to an already-jammed city; hot and humid weather in July and August also won’t help. Whether 2020 turns out to be a year of success or failure for Tokyo, the only certainty is that on the global sports stage there will be nowhere to hide from the result.