ON current events: The Olympic spirit

ON current events: The Olympic spirit


Can sport lead to diplomacy at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics?

It’s summer in Seoul, 1988, the last time East Germany and the Soviet Union will be represented in the Olympics. The Cold War is still a lived reality, although slowly dissipating. North Korea boycotts the Seoul Olympics when negotiations of joint-hosting fail, and more generally, a lack of diplomatic engagement emerges from the South.

Thirty years later, the Cold War is a faint memory. But nuclear war has become plausible, and possibly at its highest risk since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Korean Peninsula has become more tense, and with Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un having nuclear launch codes, militaristic miscalculation is not a parody, or absurd, but something serious.

With alarmist scenarios at the fore, there is some hope and diplomatic news. North Korea and South Korea have both agreed to march under one flag during the opening ceremony of the upcoming Olympic games.

The women’s hockey team will also unify, creating a joint, transnational Korean team.

With South Korea willing to have dialogue and make concessions at PyeongChang, the big question remains: will the advancements in sport lead to greater diplomatic success? Or is a joint flag and hockey team mere political window dressing designed to ease tensions or, at the very least, distract overanxious South Koreans and Americans.

I meet with U of G professor Alan McDougall on a cold January day in his office within the new wing of MacKinnon to ask him about the current political climate in Korea. Much of Professor McDougall’s research focuses on the history of sport, particularly the history of football in the communist state of East Germany. Our conversation is light and hopeful, like two friends discussing international relations over beer and a soccer match. Our tones waver when the topic of nuclear warfare comes up.

“By 1972, both German states finally recognized each other, for the first time since the end of the war,” he tells me. “Sport, in a way, is in the vanguard here. Already by the 1968 Olympics, the two German states are competing separately, [but] there is a joint flag like the Koreans are doing here.”

If the Olympics contributed to the opening of dialogue for a divided Germany, could the same be done in PyeongChang today?

There are a few differences. At the time of the 1972 Olympics, the two German states had been separated for less than 30 years. Currently, Korea has been split for over 60. Generational tensions have grown callous in Korea, dialogue has stagnated, and only opens when the occasional olive branch reaches down from the North through a small delegation. Until the unification of Germany, the East Germans had a yearning to join the international community through culture and sport. North Korea, on the other hand, is isolationist, mysterious, and only reaches out to the international community through select fields, like Dennis Rodman or women’s hockey.

Courtesy of Wikimedia

That being said, sport does tend to open up some possibilities. When talking with NBC, a North Korean official was genuinely surprised at the South’s willingness to accept North Korea’s Olympic proposals.

“Sport can be more of a reflection of politics. Sometimes it can be an advance of politics,” McDougall says. “It is, in a way, easier to make breakthroughs and agreements about a hockey team with Korea than it is with ‘bigger’ issues like political and economic issues.”

McDougall maintains a healthy dose of scepticism when discussing the power of diplomacy through sport. He’s careful to buy into the idea that the Olympics will soothe all political problems. He tells me the Olympics often have the opposite effect, like the 1936 Berlin Olympics demonstrated.

But if anyone has ever watched the Olympic Games or the World Cup and felt the emotive power of the narratives that surge across sport, allegiances can cross national borders. Cheering for an underdog, even if they’re from a precarious, militaristic communist state — like the English did in 1966 when North Korea defeated Italy 1-0 in the World Cup — can be an invigorating experience.

“I think the beauty of sport is that its transnational. Sport, it sounds like a cliché, but in the actual lived experience of athletes, sport can transcend those political borders because athletes are interested in competition,” McDougall says.


“[Athletes are] interested in testing themselves against the best. They’re interested in going to the Olympics, or World Cup, and that competitive drive can overcome a lot of political barriers.”

McDougall calls the current narrative taking place “a small positive step” towards peace in the Korean Peninsula. But he recognizes that a joint hockey team isn’t going to deter Kim Jong-un from expediting his nuclear arsenal, or stop Trump from tweeting threats of “Fire and Fury.” However, he does acknowledge the ability of sport to open dialogue for diplomatic progress.

In 1945, following a tour of Britain by the Dynamo Moscow football club, George Orwell characterized international sport and competition as “war minus the shooting.” Orwell was writing following World War II, so anything tied to nationalist fervour must have seemed like an ugly growth arising from whatever remained of the war. But his argument remains relevant today.

Perhaps a medal placement for a joint Korean team could lead to peace talks between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea — maybe even nuclear disarmament. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking, but in sport where anything seems possible, could we have the opposite of what Orwell wrote? Shooting (and scoring) minus the war?

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia via CC0

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