Adventure Athletes Are the New Diplomats

For the past 15 years the U.S. has been recruiting pro baseball and basketball players to serve as diplomatic envoys to Muslim nations. Now with Dean Karnazes, we’ve begun sending adventure athletes abroad to build good will.

Jul 8, 2016
Outside Magazine
Adventure Athletes Are the New Diplomats

Each year, the department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs sends American athletes or sports figures abroad to serve as unpaid diplomats in 20 to 30 countries.    Photo: Courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs

On Wednesday, at roughly the halfway point of Dean Karnazes’ 315-mile, 11-day tour de foot along the Silk Road in Central Asia, he ran up and over a 12,000-foot pass outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Karnazes, the 53-year-old star ultrarunner from California, had spent dozens of hours running dangerously narrow highways in 95-degree heat leading up to the pass, so the chilly air and light traffic provided a welcome reprieve. But then the skies got dark. It started raining, then hailing. 

Karnazes hurried down the shoddy road, unaware that the downpour had begun to loosen the mountains of talus above him. One hour after he ran through, a landslide smashed into the road and killed two people. Karnazes was still shaken when he brought it up on the phone that evening. “Imagine a huge scree field, and all of a sudden it just broke loose,” he said.

The runner was not in Asia for a race or sponsor engagement, but as an envoy for the U.S. State Department. Each year, the department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs sends American athletes or sports figures abroad to serve as unpaid diplomats in 20 to 30 countries. For his part, Karnazes is running through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. “We say it’s soft power in hard-to-reach places,” says State Department spokesman Nathan Arnold. Karnazes, in particular, provides "a window into American values and culture," according to a department statement.

So far, Karnazes has run with everyone from kids to mayors to Kyrgyz soldiers, who joined him in leather boots and fatigues on a 100-degree day. It’s a far cry from sports diplomacy of old, like the breakthrough 1971 visit by the U.S. ping pong team to communist China, the first time Americans had been allowed into that country in 22 years. 

The State Department launched its current sports diplomacy program after the September 11 terrorist attacks, largely to connect with and provide alternative activities to young Muslim youth who might be at risk of joining extremist groups. It operates on a roughly $5 million budget and involves four facets, including one that pairs U.S. mentors with young foreign women. Recent mentees include a pair of Indian mountaineers and identical twins, Nungshi and Tashi Malik, who completed the Explorers Grand Slam (reaching the Seven Summits and both poles); and Bangladeshi climber and activist Wasfia Nazreen, who was mentored by Burton Snowboards cofounder Donna Carpenter. 

Embassies around the world pitch ideas for the envoy program, then State Department officials decide who they want to send where, with priority given to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Two months ago, USA Triathlon president Barry Siff attended the first-ever triathlon in the African nation of Benin, a race jointly organized by the U.S. Embassy and Benin Ministry of Sports. All sports envoys serve pro bono, with travel expenses covered by the State Department. (Sponsors, like FitBit and The North Face in Karnazes’ case, often help generate publicity but don’t contribute to hard costs.)

Usually the appearances include a clinic or exhibition with mainstream sports stars: retired basketball star Shaquille O’Neal just returned from an envoy assignment in Cuba, for example. Envoys to Asia and South America have included former pro baseball players Cal Ripken, Jr. and Ken Griffey, Jr. and Olympians Michelle Kwan and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Karnazes is the first ultrarunner and third adventure athlete to serve as an envoy, after pro snowboarders Erin Comstock and Amber Stackhouse traveled to Armenia in March of 2010, where they spent six days promoting empowerment in girls, teaching snowboarding clinics, and judging a competition.

Karnazes’ involvement stemmed from a cold pitch he received from State Department cultural affairs officer Will Romine at last summer’s San Francisco Marathon. Romine, 32, had read Karnazes’ book Ultramarathon Man while serving in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan ten years ago. He was about to return for a two-year State Department post in Bishkek. He wondered if Karnazes might come over and run to mark the country’s 25th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union—and give the U.S. a good name in a region where the geopolitics remain delicate. 

Karnazes agreed, Romine pitched it to his superiors in Washington, D.C., and soon enough the plan expanded to link three countries via an ancient trading route. Karnazes arrived in Uzbekistan June 29 and has since logged up to 48 miles a day at a seven-to-ten-minute-mile pace, depending on how much water he has and how many locals jump off the curb to join him as he passes through their towns. Eight days in, the success of his visit had already surprised the State Department—and possibly opened doors for other adventurers to serve as future envoys. 

“I’m guessing 100,000 people have seen me. The streets are just lined with people,” says Karnazes, who is scheduled to finish in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on July 10. “Most of them have never seen an American before, let alone some guy running down the street in colorful athlete gear. But that element of sports diplomacy—the running—I think really broke through in a way the State Department has never experienced before. I’ve heard that over and over again from the department people.”

There are no further plans to have adventure athletes serve as U.S. envoys this year, and next year’s schedule hasn’t been finalized. But given their potential to reach average citizens in places where official communication is not always effective, adventure athletes could be called upon again. “Ultimately, I want to show people something amazing with my programs,” Romine said from Bishkek. “I want to give them an experience that will leave them talking and with a positive impression of the U.S. I think adventure sports can do that.”

That’s easy for the trip organizer to say, but does sports diplomacy—particularly adventure sports diplomacy—actually work? Alan Henrikson, director of diplomatic studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, believes it does—to an extent.  “I think if the objective is to create goodwill, then the answer is yes,” Henrikson says. “If, however, the goal of this strategy is to achieve some political objective beyond engendering goodwill, I think Dean Karnazes’ utility is very limited.”

Henrikson adds that he hopes Karnazes understands his visit is “not taking place in a political vacuum.” The U.S. covets good relationships with all three former Soviet states in which Karnazes is running, Henrikson said. It is hard to know how impactful Karnazes’ trip will be, but when it comes to diplomacy, “It’s better to engage than not to engage,” Henrikson said.

Politics aside, Karnazes says the Silk Road run has been the most unique experience of his career. And he believes he broke through in a way official diplomats never could. 

“When [U.S. Secretary of State] John Kerry comes to town, he’s not running down the streets high-fiving people, laughing, sampling the food that they offer,” Karnazes says. “These people see an American, and he’s friendly toward them. He’s a famous runner and he’s half-naked, sweating, actually hurting, and he’s taking the time to talk to them. I think that leaves a positive imprint.”

Filed To: Athletes, Running, Adventure

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