Obama’s sporting achievements

President and sports fan – how President Obama has embraced the strategic importance of sport.

Obama welcomes Major League Soccer champions LA Galaxy, with David Beckham, to the Whitehouse in May [EPA]
Obama welcomes Major League Soccer champions LA Galaxy, with David Beckham, to the Whitehouse in May [EPA]

President Barack Obama has often shown that he is in tune with what’s happening in the world of sport.

His political future is on the line in next month’s US Presidential election, and should he lose to Mitt Romney, sport fans worldwide might be sad to see him go.

Obama has been so enthusiastic about sport that it has often dominated his thoughts ahead of Whitehouse business.

This was seen during the Olympics when he gave a score update on the women’s football final whilst conducting a press conference.

It must be said however that he is not the first American President to have a zeal for sport. Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford were keen American football fans. 

However what has been significant about Obama has been his approach.

Instead of just focussing on American sports and pandering to his domestic audience, Obama has used sport to reach out to the world, according to American Studies Professor Scott Lucas from the University of Birmingham, England.

“There’s been a recognition within the Obama Administration that sport can be used as a tool to exert American soft power”.

Obama’s prime tool in this strategy appears to have been football.

While Ronald Reagan’s Administration captured the right to host 1994 World Cup, Lucas contends that “the problem was that the US gave the impression to the world that it wanted to take over football”.

He went on “they wanted to make the goals bigger as there were not enough goals, and then there was the embarrassing incident of the 1994 opening ceremony, where Diana Ross was trying to score a penalty, and then the goal collapsed!”

Obama’s strategy has been more thought out, and the comments of Professor Lucas suggest this would be met with more warmth by global sports fans.

“He’s appreciated that football is global game and that it builds communities, and that America should be part of it. He’s not tried to turn football into the World Series”.

Obama has taken a number of steps to reach out. In May for instance he was rubbing shoulders with biggest icon in world football, David Beckham, at a Whitehouse event.

Having teased Beckham about his underwear line, the former England star graciously presented Obama with an LA Galaxy T-shirt with the President’s name printed on the back.

More significantly however was the G8 Summit. Obama was pictured watching the UEFA Champions League Final with world leaders such as Chancellor Merkel of Germany, and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain.

The image of a US President watching a game that America does not dominate, while surrounded by leaders, whose nations are serious footballing powers, is extremely powerful.

Slam dunk

A factor that could explain Obama’s ability to use sport effectively could be his history with basketball.

During the nineties, while Obama was developing his legal career in Chicago, Michael Jordan was slam dunking his way to success with the Chicago Bulls. His panache helped the game gain global appeal and attention.

Obama was at close proximity to see how Jordan helped the NBA become an international phenomenon; and how this emboldened America’s cultural connection with the world.

His supporters will hope he stays at the top for long time like Jordan, but that will all depend on whether he can defeat Romney.

But could Romney offer sports fans a similar appeal? The Republican also understands the strategic importance of sport, and how it can be used to connect with the public.

Just this past weekend we saw him make a play by dispatching his Vice Presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, to a sports bar in the hotly contested state of Ohio to bond with local voters.

Such manoeuvres; attending major sports events, and getting endorsements from athletes are all part of the campaign. However while it’s clear that Romney knows how to play his cards at home, an incident during the Olympics suggests he might be out of touch with global sensitivities.

On a visit to Downing Street, the Whitehouse hopeful sparked outrage after he labelled London’s Olympic preparations as “disconcerting”.

His comments were regarded as disrespectful by the British press, and have prompted doubts as to whether he can grasp the importance of sport to the same extent as Obama.

This debate however might be lost on some. There’s an argument that no matter how sensitive politicians are to sports and culture, it is policies and political action that win people over.

Obama has certainly demonstrated a degree of understanding, but while this might boost his image for some, it is difficult to imagine how his sporting awareness would impress people living in places where US policies are perceived to bring harm.

For example, 74 per cent of Pakistanis view the US as an enemy, according to a Pew survey released in June. That’s five per cent more than last year. Furthermore, a recent study by Stanford and New York University revealed that in the last eight years, Pakistan has suffered up to 881 civilian deaths thanks to US drone attacks.

These are big numbers, and it is unlikely that Obama could repair the damage by hitting around a few cricket balls with the Pakistani cricket team. Bush Junior tried that, and he is still an unpopular man there.

What is for sure however is that Obama has been very active in the global sports sphere. His antics and approach would have probably won over many people, and to them, he will be missed should he lose.

But with the election about a month away, both he and Romney should possibly try to enlist Usain Bolt into their campaign teams. Nobody knows how to celebrate like the big Jamaican, and come November, a few tips from him would certainly come in handy for one of them.

Source : Al Jazeera

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