Politics and the Olympics

Over the years, sports have enjoyed an ever expanding globalization of competition and media. As the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic games take place, we are reminded how sports and politics are intertwined. The Olympics have historically magnified political narratives for the host country.  North and South Korea relayed a message of unity, as athletes from both countries marched in unison during the opening ceremony. Such a political move is a huge deal because North and South Korean tensions have been extremely high for decades. Evidently, both countries took advantage of the world’s biggest sports stage to make a political statement of unity. The Pyeongchang games is not the first-time politics have been strongly connected to the Olympics. Jonathan Grix, in the Political Studies Review, argues that the Olympics have been hugely political since its modern beginnings in 1896 in Athens Greece. Grix claims that often the Olympics are an opportunity for countries to express “soft power”- a persuasive tactic in international relations that uses economic and cultural influence. Hosting the Olympics is an opportunity for the home country to show off its economic and cultural power. By building modern sports facilities and putting on extravagant displays, the host country has often strived to build their image, grow a sense of national pride, attract tourism, and increase foreign investment.

China spent a record 42 billion dollars for the two-week summer games in Beijing. One can easily recall the breathtaking Beijing opening ceremony, which mixed Chinese tradition with a narrative of a new modern country. Typically, the Olympics are hosted by developed western countries, but recent years have seen countries like Brazil, South Korea and China host. For developing nations, by being selected to host the Olympics are a chance to showcase political and economic credibility, while simultaneously promoting their culture.

Some may argue the games are an opportunity for the world to come together and celebrate their respective cultures by putting politics aside for the sake of athletic competition. However, this argument falls apart when you look at the historical contexts of some of the more controversial games. For example, the 1936 Berlin games was an opportunity for the Nazis to showcase propaganda to over 300 million radio listeners worldwide. Famously, Jesse Owens, an African-American sprinter for the U.S, starkly undermined the racism spread by the Nazi party when he achieved gold.

The Olympics perhaps reached political peaks during the cold war. For example, writers Tomlinson and Young argue that the 1972 Munich games became a center stage for the divide between West Germany and the soviet controlled East Germany. Controversially, for the first time, east and west Germany were considered different countries and had different teams. The 1972 games become an avenue for the world to observe the political and cultural complexities surrounding the divide in Germany. Furthermore, during the 1980s New York winter games, the U.S.A hockey team notoriously defeated the far superior Soviet team and went on to win gold. The “miracle on ice”, as it has come to be known, magnified the cold-war conflict between the Russia and America. The 1992 Barcelona games provides another example of a country attempting to build a positive international image. For many years Spain has suffered tensions between the central state and the Catalan government. Barcelona is the capital of the Catalan government and many critics thought that a lack of efficiency and organization in Spain would bring about failure for the host city. However, many agree that Barcelona triumphed over doubt by staging a successful Olympics that highlighted their “civic pride” and identity. Overall, the Olympics are one of the most anticipated sporting events in the world, and as such, often becomes center stage for current political and cultural unrest.

Suggested Readings:

Christopher Young and Allen Tomlinson. “National Identity and Global Sports Events.”

Jonathan Grix “Sport Politics and the Olympics”

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