To imagine meeting one of the world’s most accomplished athletes is one thing. To actually be part of this athlete’s efforts to spread goodwill and friendship is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Numerous times each year, our U.S. diplomatic missions around the world host American Sports Envoys who not only bring messages of goodwill from the American people, but also teach by example, inspire thousands with their personal stories, and give hope and optimism to people grappling with challenging circumstances.
This April, U.S. Consulate General Jerusalem was honored to host Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the first-ever U.S. Sports Envoy to Jerusalem and the West Bank. Through the efforts of the State Department’s SportsUnited division and USA Track & Field, Jackie came here as a U.S. goodwill ambassador as well as a motivational speaker who spoke with Palestinians about American values of perseverance, hard work, and friendship through sport.
During Jackie’s time in Jerusalem and the West Bank, she spoke to young Palestinians in schools and in English Access Microscholarship classes about the importance of believing in oneself and one’s abilities – both in moments of success and failure. Jackie noted that even when she started running at eight years-old and came in last place in races, she never stopped trying to work hard to improve herself. Jackie’s comments moved one young Palestinian to tears, and she shared with Jackie that Jackie’s words will help her try to overcome a personal issue with which she’s struggling.
Jackie’s inspiration was not limited to presentations and classroom discussions. In track and field clinics with hundreds of women and young girls, Jackie illustrated that women’s participation in sports is a key component to women’s empowerment, or as Jackie reiterated, “girl power.” Following a successful clinic and autograph signing with 100 girls from public schools located throughout the West Bank, one excited student said, “this is the biggest thing that has happened at our school … ever!” During a clinic with Palestinian women from rural areas in the West Bank who were newcomers to the world of running, Jackie provided a lesson in basic movement and form. A representative from Palestinian program partner Juzoor for Health and Social Development noted that we “brought Jackie as a model to inspire women.” Finally, as the guest of honor at the very first Palestinian track and field day in the West Bank, Jackie promoted awareness of the sport, and prompted organizers to discuss how the track and field day could become an annual event.
Whether meeting with prominent Palestinian athletes, cheering on Palestinians with disabilities who were participating in sports camps in table tennis and wheelchair basketball, or encouraging university students interested in fitness and health sciences to pursue their dreams, Jackie Joyner-Kersee was a superstar – both on and off the track. She helped reinvigorate the true meaning of public diplomacy in a region struggling for peace and stability, and proved that not only is she one of the greatest all-around athletes in U.S. history, she is a talented goodwill ambassador who can build bridges between Americans and other people of the world.
About the Author: Richard Buangan serves as a Public Affairs Officer at the American Consulate General in Jerusalem.