Sports diplomacy. This term typically brings to mind images of athletes in action, engaging young and old on their field of play, sharing not only their prowess in sport, but their cultures and values. In Zimbabwe, American soccer player-turned-administrator Jon McCullough gave new meaning to sports diplomacy, trading in cleats for loafers, jerseys for business suits, and playbooks for PowerPoint.
Soccer in Zimbabwe is primed for change. Plagued for years by corruption, mismanagement and scandal, the nation's athletes, coaches and administrators are determined to bring a new level of professionalism to their sport. More importantly, players are beginning to take seriously their responsibilities as role models to Zimbabwe's youth, eager to transform themselves into a force for positive change. Yet, despite these best intentions, Zimbabwe's soccer administrators -- many of them former players themselves -- lack the professional skills necessary to facilitate such a revolution.
Having recently partnered with the Footballers Union of Zimbabwe (FUZ) on the launch of an innovative HIV/AIDS program, U.S. Embassy Harare recognized an opportunity to assist these players and administrators through a novel take on sports diplomacy. Using the International Information Program's speaker initiative, we recruited McCullough to come to Zimbabwe and conduct a multi-day workshop with the country's top soccer players, coaches, owners, and administrators.
McCullough currently serves as Chairman of the U.S. Soccer Federation Athlete Council and Vice Chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee Athlete Advisory Council. Additionally, he spent 12 years as a starting player on the U.S. Paralympic soccer team. He has devoted himself to the progress of the soccer movement in the United States and spoke at length about the importance of strong governance structures and transparent leadership. He understands the value of athletes giving back to their communities and stressed the positive role they can play in promoting social causes. McCullough emphasized the need for women to be represented in the sport's leadership, citing the U.S victory at the 1999 Women's World Cup as the starting point for the present day soccer movement in the United States.
By the end of the workshop, the head coach of the national soccer team had already been quoted in a local paper as saying he now views soccer in a whole new light -- as a movement and not simply a sport. This enthusiasm was shared by players, owners and administrators alike. Perhaps most surprisingly, though, McCullough's workshop resulted in a new appreciation for American soccer. As one player said, "Arsenal is still my favorite team, but the U.S. could teach us all something about how to run a federation."
McCullough noted this was the first clinic of its kind for U.S. soccer; the first time outreach efforts had shifted from the field to the conference center. Without ever getting out of their seats, he was able to put Zimbabwe's sports leaders through a skills development program as rigorous and challenging as any national team practice. Call it sports diplomacy -- without all the sweat.