With the United States and Cuba attempting to normalize relations and with President Barack Obama meeting with Cuban officials in Havana and with a baseball game as the Tampa Bay Rays are scheduled to take on the Cuban national team on Tuesday in an exhibition game, it probably is a good time to see how sports does play a role in mending fences between angry countries.
In the mid-1950s during the Cold War, President Dwight Eisenhower was looking for an opening that could improve the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States. One of the ways Eisenhower thought that could happen was through sports and the United States sent an amateur hockey team to play the Soviets in Moscow. It was a nice try but ultimately failed. One of the players on that team, Bill Cleary said that the team gathered for dinner at a Moscow hotel and saw replicas of Sputnik on the table with their plates, forks, knives, spoons and cups to remind them that the Soviets were successful in launching the first spacecraft, Sputnik, into space in 1957. Eisenhower’s Vice President at the time, Richard Nixon would be much more successful in mending old wounds between two battling countries, the US and China in 1972 when he went to Beijing and met with Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse Tung. A year earlier, the US Table Tennis team was invited to China and it probably was that series of matches between the Americans and Chinese that helped thaw the US-China relationship. The United States and Cuba have had almost no relationship from 1961 through 2015 as the US under President John F. Kennedy broke off diplomatic ties and placed Cuba on an economic embargo. The embargo is technically still in place. Presidents have used international sports for political purposes and Obama has a baseball team with him in Cuba. That’s how Eisenhower envisioned it with the USSR and failed.
Republished with permission Evan Weiner with The Politics of Sports Business.