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How the U.S. Can Score Big in the World of Diplomacy

Sports stars have fans everywhere, so let's enlist them.

October 08, 2003|Pico Iyer | Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of "Abandon" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), a novel about California, Islam and the dialogue between them.

Just imagine, I thought in an idle moment, if we had elected Magic Johnson president in 2000. If we can vote for actors or even former bodybuilders, why not a real athletic superstar? Phil Jackson might be sitting in the Western White House -- somewhere near Staples Center -- spreading his Zen inspirations as secretary of Defense.

People in Indonesia, France or the Middle East would be clamoring to see and hear from the American president. Bipartisanship would be all but guaranteed (though Bill Bradley might be forgiven a little wistfulness).

A facetious suggestion, of course. But it speaks to a serious point. Politics divide us and inevitably get people thinking about their party versus ours, this policy position as opposed to that one. Sports, by contrast, thrive on competitions we know are arbitrary entertainment, and they bring us together by scrambling all our ideas of who belongs to whom. The Lakers have fans in every corner of the globe, and Dodger games are broadcast on Japanese TV (especially when Hideo Nomo is on the mound).

Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and now Hideki Matsui of the Yankees have done more for Japan's public standing in the United States than any trade commissioner or electronics chairman -- precisely because they show trade taking place in an arena in which everyone stands to gain. And those who believe in the multicultural promise of Los Angeles score big points by pointing to the onetime Dodger starting rotation in which each of the five pitchers came from a different country.

I thought of all this when I heard about one enterprising, Japanese-fluent citizen who had sneaked into a Seattle baseball game with a sign in Japanese, ostensibly in support of Ichiro but actually questioning President Bush's humanity and suggesting that not all Americans were proud of their leader. Multilingual Mariner security people got wind of the prank and seized the sign in the seventh inning -- but by then the canny dissident had sent his secret message of protest, via TV screens, across the U.S. and Japan.

I turned on my own TV screen in Japan, where I live, and noted that Omar Linares, one of Fidel Castro's great friends and heroes, was playing for the Chunichi Dragons (for years, U.S. teams were trying to get him to defect). The home-run leaders in the Japanese baseball leagues, cheered on by people not otherwise smitten with the Dominican Republic, are named Cabrera and Martinez and Petagine. And this year, for the first time ever, even the Russians will be able to watch the World Series on TV. The fan with the seditious sign was trying to use sports as a covert forum for politics. But he didn't have to, really. Sports get the political point across quite nicely, without anyone realizing it. Much of the world bridles at the notion of America the superpower, the economic giant and the political bully; but the same people can't get enough of Tiger Woods, Venus Williams and Michael Jordan (even now).

Send Shaquille O'Neal on the next trade mission to Shanghai and no one will be talking of hegemons or takeovers. Maybe ping-pong diplomacy is really the best kind there is.

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