Duncan Mackay
Joel_Bouzou_head_and_shouldersThe media impact of sport is such that today, sport is much more than the game itself. With substantial investment from political actors, its diplomatic impact and its geopolitical repercussions can be monumental.

At the end of last month, close to a billion people witnessed the desire  for reconciliation expressed by India and Pakistan on a playing field. The cricket World Cup is one of the most eagerly awaited, highly followed and most celebrated sports events on the Indian sub-continent.

The semi-final match between the two countries provided the opportunity for a historic meeting between the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan.

They went to the field ahead of the game, then after the eight-hour competition they had dinner together and made press statements calling people to take this opportunity to consolidate the rapprochement and consider a "permanent reconciliation".

The strong symbolic significance of the event is due to the political context in which it took place, linked to tensions arising from the Mumbai bombings of 2008. Lately, however, the fact that the two capitals have been abandoned by Washington has led them to reconsider bilateral relationship-building. Using this high-profile event, which was the focus of world media, is confirmation of the plan to forge closer relations, and lets us hope that the message conveyed at the highest political level will also spread through the ranks.

Like cricket diplomacy, we have seen ping-pong diplomacy between China and the United States since the 70's, and football diplomacy, recently illustrated by meetings between Turkey and Armenia during the qualifying matches for the World Cup 2010. Sports diplomacy covers all sports in all regions of the world. It is an expression of "soft power" to facilitate rapprochement between two countries that are opposed. Sport, like culture, heritage and business, is a vehicle for this "soft power", a tool for influence and persuasion which States are increasingly using to improve their relations.

The unparalleled visibility of sport and its impact on people makes it a perfect pretext for diffusing political messages. This symbolic gesture by the two countries publicly confirmed the reconciliation that has been planned for some time. The match was thus used as a sounding board for shared political intentions. Only tangible progress will enable us to assess the real reach of the event; however, by this display, the two ministers firmly committed to their responsibilities before public opinion in their own countries and those around the world.

But let's not delude ourselves by imagining that we can wave a magic wand that will solve the conflict between India and Pakistan. Sport is one diplomatic tool among many others; it is not sufficient in itself to achieve a political revolution. This needs to be done through many other areas.

So, retrospectively this event will only be meaningful if it helps to build sustainable bridges between the two communities. Cricket diplomacy is not new, and up until now its long-term effects have not been clearly visible once the event is out of the spotlight. Back in 2005, in a context just as delicate, Pervez Musharraf visited the Indian capital for a similar meeting between the two countries, which was also described as historic.

We hope that this time the political momentum is sustainable and we will closely follow the consequences of this high-level diplomatic rapprochement. But diplomacy has its own autonomous logic, and it is often not enough to remove deep-rooted bitterness and violence at the heart of communities. Peace "at the grassroots level" is at least as important as at the top elite level. So to consolidate this political goodwill expressed through sport, we must consider this event as the starting point for a pragmatic initiative that consists of using sport as a tool for reconciliation on a local level in trans-border regions and areas of tension.

Who should take advantage of this opportunity? Politicians of course; but also and above all the sports movement, which can be essential stimulus for peace-building and peace-promotion activities in the context of its work to spread the practice of sport. Sports institutions and associations have an existing operational capacity which enables them to extend political processes.

We have to grasp the signal sent by political authorities to assess what sport can do on a community level. It will mean involving the powerful force that the international federations constitute; by associating with local intermediaries and collaborating with national institutions from two countries, federations can envisage synergetic programs for action.

No, sport will not definitively stop tensions, but on its own level it can bring understanding between hostile communities, particularly in the Kashmir border region. Cricket is the number one sport on both sides of the border; furthermore it's an ideal choice because it imparts the values of fair play taught by British gentlemen at the time of the Indian Empire. These intrinsic qualities make cricket a vehicle for propagating values beyond the sporting context.

Athletes, who are impartial and respected figures, must also get involved in this process. In the eyes of the people, they are essential actors who have the ability to transmit daily messages of peace and respect at the community level. Some sports champions have not hesitated to take initiatives that deserve to be congratulated: for example two tennis players, one from India and the other from Pakistan, one Hindu the other Muslim, who rallied support from the international sports community by teaming up for Wimbledon and the last US Tennis Open to launch a media campaign to encourage understanding between their two countries. Their combat deserves to be encouraged to intensify the hope that today seems to be emerging in the Indian subcontinent.

Sports diplomacy is a tool that may turn out to be short-term. It requires actors from the world of sport to take responsibility.

Joel Bouzou is the founder and President of "Peace and Sport, L'Organisation pour la Paix par le Sport". An elite modern pentathlete, Bouzou competed in four Olympic Games, including winning a bronze medal at Los Angeles in 1984. He won the World Championship in 1987 and was later secretary general of the International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM). To find out more about Peace and Sport click here