International diplomacy, on the hardwood

Vanessa Luppino hustled down the floor in George Mason University's Field House, not quite at a run, although not at a leisurely pace, either. In truth, she moved a bit like a power-walker in a mall, except one who was also dribbling a basketball. The activity — to try to score without breaking into a run — made for a goofy, fun moment that ended with a layup, which Luppino celebrated by throwing her hands in the air.

"I enjoy playing so much. I'm all grown up now, but hey, I love to play," said Luppino, a 28-year-old Argentine who spoke through an interpreter. "The adult in me just vanishes, and I'm a child again."

Luppino was among a group of 12 female basketball coaches from Argentina visiting George Mason University this month as part of an initiative run through the school's Center for Sport Management. The program, which began in 2011 and is funded by a State Department grant, brings groups of international coaches, sports administrators and mostly teenage athletes to the public university's campus in Fairfax County, Virginia.

The program, which mixes training sessions in sports with workshops on U.S. government and culture, is also designed to help diplomatic efforts in the United States.

"These are normal people. These are not diplomats. These are not foreign-service officers. These are not presidents, prime ministers, members of Congress," said Craig Esherick, an associate professor at George Mason who is involved in the initiative. "These are ordinary Americans meeting . . . ordinary Indians or Pakistanis that have a common interest in sports. And that interest in sports develops a bond between them and us immediately."

Participants gain a deeper understanding of inclusion and diversity in athletics, organizers say, at the same time that they get a glimpse of American culture — specifically, American sports culture.

"It's kind of grounded in the theory that if you bring people together and they interact with each other and maybe you put them in a position where they have some common goals and common experiences, then it breaks down barriers and breaks down stereotypes, and it allows people to, at the grass-roots level to get to know each other," said Bob Baker, Center for Sport Management director and Mason professor, who is also involved in the program. "That's really what this program is all about."

More than 70 groups have come through the program at Mason — "from snowboarders from Kyrgyzstan to soccer players from Pakistan and India," said Esherick, who previously served as Georgetown University's men's basketball coach. He was also an assistant coach on the U.S. Olympic team in the 1980s, which whet his appetite for working with coaches internationally.

"I think we probably had groups from every -stan — Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, I'm serious, Kazakhstan," he said. "You think of a place where we're trying to develop better relations, and we've had a sport diplomacy group from that country."

Sports, "being a universal language," Baker said, has the power to create understanding and ease tensions.

"It exists in virtually every culture," he said. "And it provides a common ground to build some understanding from that. And so that's why it's become a tool for diplomacy, for peace building for development."

Each group goes through about 10 to 14 days of programming, Esherick said. Groups learn about the American system of government and typically takes part in a team-building exercise. There's a Title IX lecture and usually a discussion about athletic programs for those with disabilities.

"I'm impressed to see the things that they are sharing with us that are not related to sports, specifically," one of the Argentine participants, Ivana Gho, 35, said through an interpreter. "Because we work with people, and so it's important to be able to incorporate all the rest of that, and the tools that they're offering us to use."

On Thursday, the group from Argentina sat in a cramped room on Mason's campus, listening through headsets as interpreters talked them through sessions. One woman gave a presentation on conflict resolution. Later, there was a session on injury prevention, which covered icing, pain and swelling.

"It's been such a comprehensive training thus far," said Celeste Cabañez, 30, another participant who also spoke through an interpreter. "It looks at not just the sport but also the individual. And not just the basketball player but the individual, the coach, as a whole person."

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