Breaking New Barriers in Sports Diplomacy

Posted by Morgan Obrien
April 16, 2014
Paralympic Judo Bronze Medalist and U.S. Sports Envoy Crocket Trains Young Athletes in Turkmenistan

In a July 2013, ESPN newsmagazine Outside the Lines ran a piece titled “Carry On,” featuring the story of Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton, former high school wrestling teammates who struck up an unlikely friendship while competing together at Cleveland’s Lincoln West High School.  Crockett, severely near-sighted from Leber's disease, often carried Sutton, whose legs were amputated after a boyhood accident.  After high school, Crockett began to focus on judo, taking quickly to the sport, winning a national championship in 2012, en route to earning a bronze medal in the 90 kg weight class at the 2012 London Paralympics.  The powerful ESPN piece cast Crockett as a ferocious competitor who personified American values of perseverance over adversity, with a strong work ethic, and a deeply loyal friend.

Coincidentally, in the weeks before “Carry On” aired, I received a proposal from the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, to create a judo program for athletes with visual impairments.  The proposed program would help “build confidence in youths with visual impairment by encouraging them to participate in judo, provide judo clinics, and bring together sports and Paralympic officials to discuss how to further augment local capacity.”  Judo is immensely popular in Turkmenistan, and a judo champion from the United States would be enthusiastically welcomed.

After I watched “Carry On,” it was obvious that Crockett would be the ideal athlete to lead this program.  I reached out to USA Judo and U.S. Paralympics, and thanks in large part to their terrific coordination, Crockett came on board as the State Department’s first-ever blind Sports Envoy (and only the third Sports Envoy with a disability in State Department history).

Sports Envoys Dartanyon Crockett and Heidi Moore pose for a group photo with Turkmen athletes with disabilities during a sports exchange program in Turkmenistan in March 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Crockett traveled to Turkmenistan from March 24-29 in conjunction with ECA’s Lives without Limits campaign, which uses international exchanges to promote inclusion, tolerance, and mutual respect.  While in Turkmenistan, Crockett and fellow sports envoy Heidi Moore, a coach on the USA Judo Visually Impaired Women’s National Team, offered world-class judo instruction to Turkmen youth and athletes with disabilities.  Embassy Ashgabat also screened “Carry On” for Turkmen guests at the Embassy and the American Corners in Mary and Turkmenabat.

As a direct result of Crockett’s and Moore’s outreach, numerous high profile groups in Turkmenistan have already expressed tremendous enthusiasm to elevate judo as a sport for athletes with disabilities.  We at the State Department want to do more of these kinds of exchanges in Central Asia and around the world, connecting athletes like Crockett with the ability to engage and inspire new audiences and partners. Once again, sports are tearing down barriers, empowering people, and paving the way for better tomorrows.

About the Author: Morgan O'Brien serves as a Cultural Affairs Officer in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs' (ECA) SportsUnited Office.

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