Sport-Tech Diplomacy: The Case of Israel

5 mars 2021
By Dr. Yoav Dubinsky, Instructor of Sports Business in the Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon

Since the 1967 Six Days War, in which Israel tripled its size including occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the image of the country has significantly deteriorated. After Israel’s independence in 1948, the country enjoyed a positive reputation of being framed as “David” – an unlikely story of a small Jewish state in a hostile region surrounded by enemy Arab countries that was founded by immigrants and holocaust survivors. Yet since 1967, the power component became more central in Israel’s image and international media focused on the occupation of Palestinian territories, framing the country as the “Goliath”. The Israeli-Arab dispute, and especially the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian dispute, has a negative distancing impact on Israel’s image.

Israel’s ability to use sports for public diplomacy and nation branding purposes has been limited by the Israeli-Arab dispute. Through boycotts, exclusions, demonstrations, cancelled and postponed events, and even a deadly terror attack during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, West Germany, international politics have often overshadowed Israel’s participation in international sports. Thus, even in the domain of sports, Israel’s national image is linked to a distancing conflict. In the last decades, several policymakers and scholars suggested that Israel should create bypassing messages to the Israeli-Arab dispute, such as focusing on the growing technological ecosystem.

In the article Sport-Tech Diplomacy: Exploring the intersections between the sport-tech ecosystem, innovation, and diplomacy in Israel”,  the term “sport-tech diplomacy” is developed and exemplified how Israeli stakeholders used the growing sport-tech ecosystem for public diplomacy and nation branding purposes.

Sport-Tech Diplomacy

Traditional public diplomacy refers to communications and interactions with foreign publics intended to achieve foreign policy goals. Public diplomacy is one component of what political scientist Joseph Nye refers to as soft power: attempts by countries to achieve foreign policy goals through attractions rather than the use of threats and economic sanctions. Examples of traditional public diplomacy through sports can include the mass boycotts of the Olympic Games in Moscow and Los Angeles during the Cold War for political purposes. The use of sports for such purposes constitutes soft power, used at times as part of cultural diplomacy or standing on its own as sports diplomacy. Through hosting events and achieving competitive success, countries, cities, and communities have used sports to achieve a more favorable image. For example, the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games embodies opportunities for the host nation to capitalise on global television viewership and display its culture, history, and industry.

There are different kinds of intersections between sports, technology, and public diplomacy. Examples include Germany using national broadcasting during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin to show how highly functional the country could be under the governance of the National Socialist Party. Tokyo used its 1964 Olympic Games to expose local technology and brand itself as a global technological powerhouse, and many more. More contemporary definitions of public diplomacy also consider the roles of private citizens (people-to-people diplomacy) and companies (corporate diplomacy) in shaping the reputation of a country and having an impact that aligns with foreign policy.

Digital diplomacy pertains to the use of digital platforms, including the internet and social media for diplomatic purposes. The growing industry of the sport-tech market embodies further opportunities for countries, governments, non-state actors, private companies, non-governmental organisations, and private citizens to use sport-tech for diplomatic purposes. The international sports innovation group Colosseum divides the sport-tech nation map into six categories: (a) athlete development, (b) fan engagement, (c) smart stadium, (d) health and fitness, (e) gaming and esports, and (f) media and broadcasting. The term sport-tech diplomacy highlights the different intersections between public diplomacy, sports, and technology.

Start-Up Nation

Israel is by its own definition a homeland for Jewish people, having policies, such as The Law of Return and the Citizenship Law, that grant Israeli citizenship to every Jewish person who makes “Aliyah” and immigrates to Israel. Culture and history of learning, innovation, and constant adaptation are rooted in the history of Judaism. From the nickname “People of the Book” and a culture of learning that developed in segregated Yeshiva schools, though communities facings antisemitism and being forced to constantly move and adapt, problem-solving and challenging the status quo are rooted in the Jewish experience. Revolutionary thought and a need to assimilate led Jews to impact and shape the physical and social world. Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are just a few of many Jewish people who revolutionised their fields. Although being less than 0.2% of the world’s population, over 20% of Nobel Prize recipients were at least part Jewish.

Authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer discuss the culture of innovation, adaptation, and learning when referring to Israel as a “Start-Up Nation”. In recent decades, the Israeli government, the private sector, and individual entrepreneurs have adopted the branding of Israel as a “Start-Up Nation”. As of 2020, according to Israel Innovation Authority, Israel has the “largest number of start-ups per capita in the world”, with over 6,500 start-ups and over 300 hubs. The emergence of the Israeli sport-tech industry is the result of a long-term Jewish culture of innovation and Israel’s unique geopolitical situation.

Innovation in Israel’s Sports Diplomacy

In the context of the Zionist Movement and the development of the state of Israel, physical activity and sports played an innovative role through the concept of “Muscular Judaism”. The term, coined by Max Nordau in the second Zionist Congress in 1898, reflected a need to change the image of Jewish people, from the European Jews who were living in segregated communities learning the Torah, to strong proactive people who will build and defend the future Jewish homeland. One of the manifestations was the establishment of the Maccabi Movement and the Maccabiah Games, a quadrennial international multi-sport event for Jews event taking place in Israel, which promote Aliyah to Israel and serve as networking between Jewish communities around the world. Thus, having a purely diplomatic significance to the State of Israel.

The athletic success of Israel is much more modest, winning only one Olympic Gold Medal by windsurfer Gal Friedman in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. Perhaps the most known sports brand in Israel is Maccabi Tel-Aviv Basketball Club, one of the most decorated sports clubs in the world, winning over 100 cups and trophies, including six European Cups. Israel was one of the early adopters of the idea to use sports for rehabilitation, echoing with Ludwig Guttmann, the father of Paralympic sport and German-born British Jewish doctor. In 1968, Tel Aviv even hosted the third edition of the Paralympic Games. Thus, innovation and adaptation through sports are also rooted in the Israeli experience.

Sport-Tech Nation

Different stakeholders, including the Israeli government, the Israeli industry, and private citizens, see value in the branding of the country as a Start-Up Nation and, in the context of sports, as a sport-tech nation. Several club owners, such as Moshe Hogeg from Beitar Jerusalem, made their fortune in start-up companies. Retired athletes such as Olympic swimmer Gal Nevo are also involved in new start-ups. Philanthropist Sylvan Adams co-founded Israel’s Cycling Academy and the cycling team Israel Start-Up Nation that competed in the 2020 Tour de France.

Israeli start-ups work with the biggest leagues and sports franchises in the world. Pixellot, for example, a company that offers AI automated video production, works with the highest level of elite sports such as FC Barcelona, while also providing solutions to hundreds of schools across the United States. PlaySight, uses AI technology for automated production, working with organizations at every level in over 20 sports disciplines including NBA teams and Division I colleges and universities. The company Intelligym adapts a concept used to train air-force pilots and developed the technology to improve decision making in football and ice-hockey. Some of the partners or users include football clubs from the German Bundesliga, Hockey Canada, DI universities, and others. Thus, while Israel is a small market, by tackling global problems that require solutions, the Israeli sport-tech industry is adopted by some of the leading international sports organisations and global companies, thus enhancing the reputation of Israel as a highly technological country without necessarily needing to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The sport-tech industry is tied to the geopolitical situation in Israel. Being a small country with a booming high-tech industry, Israel offers value being a greenhouse for sport-tech start-ups. The military service serves as a melting pot, and there are some parallels between soldiers and athletes regarding quick decision-making, for example. Furthermore, the concept of Tikkun Olam, a need to repair the world, is rooted deep into Judaism, which reflects also a DNA of universal solution-seeking, and manifested for example in an industry trying to tackle the challenges of COVID. The Israeli character and the “chutzpah” to try, fail and try again, along with the geopolitical situation and the history of antisemitism, creating an adaptive culture that fits the start-up industry, and projects an image that fits the diplomatic goals of the country. Israel is by far not the only country with a developing sport-tech industry nor does sports-technology can solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but it sheds light on the potential use of sport-tech diplomacy either as a bypassing message to a distancing image to form collaboration or for small countries to differentiate themselves on a global stage.

Dr. Yoav Dubinsky is an Instructor of Sports Business in the Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon. Dr. Dubinsky earned his PhD at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, writing his dissertation on “Israel’s use of sports for nation branding and public diplomacy”.

This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon.
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