Building Bridges Through Sports Diplomacy in New Zealand and Samoa

Posted by Mark Gilbert
April 28, 2015
McLeod Park Baseball Diamond Opening [State Department Photo]

One of the most interesting and exciting parts of my job since my arrival in New Zealand has been leading and promoting a variety of sports diplomacy initiatives. As a life-long athlete and former Major League Baseball player, I recognize the enduring friendships, connections and leadership skills that can evolve from participation in sports. My time with the Chicago White Sox left an incredible lasting impact on me and my hope is that through supporting sports diplomacy in New Zealand, we can share our joint passion for sports, and strengthen relations between our two countries.

Ambassador Mark Gilbert Attends Baseball Training With the Pros, February 1, 2015 [State Department Photo]

Just two weeks after my arrival, we partnered with Major League Baseball (MLB) and Baseball New Zealand for a campaign to share “America’s Pastime” with Kiwis. The week of clinics, friendly competition and inspirational talks featured former New York Mets pitcher DJ Carrasco and Milwaukee Brewers Manager Ron Roenicke, who visited Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch during the Baseball New Zealand ‘MLB Roadshow.’  In Auckland Ron went across the city, visiting local baseball clubs in Pakuranga, Te Atatu, and Northcote.  I loved the chance to get back on the field on a Sunday afternoon to throw the ball around with local Wellington kids in Poirirua.

Boy Throws Ball At Baseball Training With Pro MLB Players, February 1, 2015 [State Department Photo]

I was thrilled to hear that shortly after the program ended NZ Diamondblacks catcher Te Wera (Beau) Bishop signed a minor league contract with the Milwaukee Brewers.  Beau will join several other Kiwis playing baseball professionally in the United States, including current Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher John Holzkom.  In fact, more than two dozen young Kiwis have played either pro or collegiate baseball in the United States in the last five years.  The success of these New Zealanders has come through hard work, skill, and persistence on the part of the players.  American colleges and professional sports teams are always on the lookout for talent -- and through programs like this and links with partners like Baseball New Zealand, the Mission will work to bring the next generation of Kiwi talent like Beau Bishop in to the international spotlight.

Even though I come from a baseball background, I’ll concede that football (or ‘gridiron’ as known by many Kiwis) is the most widely played and watched sport in America. In early March, we were happy to team up with the Paul Soliai Foundation and the Samoan Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture to lead a sports diplomacy outreach program with National Football League (NFL) players around Upolu Island in Samoa. The program featured school visits, motivational talks, football clinics and meetings with prominent figures in both the government and sports sectors. It was geared toward highlighting the benefits of a healthy lifestyle through sport and the benefits of focusing on educational opportunities to better prepare for one’s future.

Three top Samoan NFL stars - Paul Soliai, Isaako Aaitui and Olivier Vernon - from the Paul Soliai Foundation Speake to Youth During Their Visit to Samoa, March 2, 2015 [State Department Photo]

NFL stars Paul Soliai and Isaako Aaitui returned to Samoa, bringing with them new additions to the program – players Olivier Vernon and Samson Satele. The group met several years back when they played for the Miami Dolphins and two have since signed with other teams. Aaitui headed to the Washington Redskins, Soliai to the Atlanta Falcons while Vernon and Satele remain with the Dolphins. These players are united in their mission to give back to the community and generously offered to travel to Samoa to volunteer their time running football clinics at schools and spreading an important message of leadership through athletics. My team had fun interviewing Samoan youth after they participated in the program and asking whether they preferred football or rugby…watch the video below to see what they say.

In addition to these larger programs, we’re always looking for chances to work with local groups on sports related initiatives.  My Deputy, Candy Green, told me how much she enjoyed meeting the USA field hockey team when they competed in Wairarapa last year.  We also just worked with the New Zealand Lacrosse Association to help them host their national tournament, and promote this important growing sport with Native American origins. I am excited to welcome the U.S. Under 20 Men’s Soccer Team this May when they come for the FIFA U-20 World Cup.

US Chargé d’Affaires Candy Green Cheers on the US Women’s National Field Hockey Team in the Final Deciding Match of the USA vs New Zealand Black Sticks Women Series, Clareville, Carterton, October 26, 2014 [State Department Photo]

 

Sports diplomacy initiatives worldwide are an integral part of the State Department’s efforts to strengthen relations with other countries. Through events and programs, we use the universal passion for sports as a way to transcend differences and bring people together. Sport teaches leadership, teamwork, and communication skills that help young people succeed in all areas of their lives.  Through these efforts we can increase dialogue and cultural understanding around the world.

It’s tough to say which country is more passionate about their love for sport.  I’ve definitely learned a lot about rugby and cricket since I arrived…they are always the focus of conversation anywhere  you go!  But, one thing is clear to me, sport has provided our countries with deep and genuine bonds that can continuously strengthen our relations and, of course, promote a little friendly competition.  Play ball! 

About the Author: Mark Gilbert serves as U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa. For more from Ambassador Gilbert, follow @AmbMarkGilbert on Twitter.

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