Clausewitz on ice: sports diplomacy and the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games

By Stuart Murray


The topic of sports diplomacy at the 2018 Pyeongchang ‘peace’ Winter Olympics has made headline news the world over. Newspapers, television and social media posts are full of stories about North Korean sport (sic.) diplomacy, Kim Yo-jong’s handshake with Moon Jae-in, the thawing of the frosty North/South relationship, a grim Mike Pence saying ‘we’re not playing’, and, of course, North Korea’s cheerleading squad. Most of these stories, however, miss the mark by quite some distance. There is nothing new about sports diplomacy nor anything genuine about the North’s attempts to build bridges with their sworn enemies. Dictators, it has to be remembered, love sport just as much as sports lovers or the general publics.

Sport and Diplomacy – An Overview

The relationship between sport and diplomacy can be traced back over millennia, way, way beyond the Ancient Olympiad. Games, play, running, sport are woven into human DNA, and can be evidenced across all periods of the human story. This is why modern humans still play, watch, and, arguably, enjoy running, wrestling, boxing, fighting, fishing, hunting, javelin and more.

Besides a bit of fun, sport also provides a vital diplomatic function. It sublimates conflict, transcends acrimony in hostile relationships, promotes comity over xenophobia, and helps mediate the estrangement caused by the political structures humans create, be they rudimentary or advanced. Again, this diplomatic function of sport is as ancient as the sport of running. The earliest human societies used sport for social, cultural and diplomatic purposes, especially to avoid inter-group conflict. This idea relates to the psychologist Gordon W. Allport’s classic Contact Hypothesis. Simply, sport provides a ‘level playing field’ for separated people to meet which, in turn, reduces tension, division, xenophobia, and the sort of misunderstandings that often lead to inter-group violence. From the First Peoples of Australia to ancient Egypt and the Cradle of Civilization, there is plenty of evidence of sport being consciously employed to increase contact, and, ergo, reduce the prospect of violence between disparate people, nations and city-states.

Mandela captured the diplomatic essence of sport, famously, and correctly, noting in 2000 that it “has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.” This statement encapsulates both the spirt and purpose of Olympic Diplomacy. Perhaps the most well-know iteration is the concept of the Truce. During the Ancient Olympiad, the Truce (Ekecheria, the Greek word for ‘a staying of the hand’) afforded athletes, spectators and officials protection while travelling to and from the Games. The Ancient Games were also an expression of Pan-Hellenism. While Sparta, Argos, Athens and many others had their military rivalries and political differences sport was something they all had in common. It transcended politics, in other words.

The Olympics

The modern Games are similar in nature, spirit and purpose to their ancient predecessor. Their architect, the French educator and historian, Pierre de Coubertin, intentionally infused them with the ancient spirit. In Paris in the year1894 – and sounding very much like a Delphic priest – he raised a glass “to the Olympic idea, which has traversed the mists of ages like an all-powerful ray of sunlight and returned to illumine the threshold of the twenty first century with a gleam of joyous hope.”

These qualities are manifest in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, though sometimes it’s hard to detect them beyond the hype, razzmatazz, politics, mascots, diplomacy and rampant, rapacious commercialism. All athletes must, for example, swear an Olympic Oath that dates to the 1920 Antwerp Summer Games. And, curiously, every aspect of the Games – from security to athlete accommodation to the rules and regulations – are infused with the ideal of Olympisim, which seeks to “create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles (IOC 2015). In such a context, Olympic sport is much more than just competing, winning and representing a nation abroad. It is a both a vehicle to, and representation of, philosophy, education, social responsibilities, and universal and spiritual ethical principles.

The Games – ancient or modern, summer or winter – also have an overt political character. While clearly a sports-idealist, Coubertin was also a savy political operator. From the outset, he knew the Olympic Games could promote sport as a spiritual and diplomatic force for good but only if it worked with, and within, a world of nation-states. “The leadership of Coubertin”, as Beacom – author of International Diplomacy and the Olympic Movement – notes, was “inherently political with internationalist aspirations,” and, “sensitive to the power of nationalist aspiration.” The Olympics, in other words, are a classic example of sport, politics, and, by extension, diplomacy ‘mixing.’

North and South Sporting Detente

This brings us back to the North/South sporting detente occurring at the Pyeongchang ‘peace’ games. Before getting carried away by all the talks of ‘peace at last’ it is important to remember a few, hard truths about the relationship between sport, politics and diplomacy. The Games unite swathes of people but, in the hands of egotistical or savvy political operators they can be used to cast a spell over the global sporting public.

First, it must be remembered that sporting mega-events are often hijacked by political leaders for jingoistic purposes. Usually it’s the host nation showing off but in the case of the Pyeongchang Games, the potentially unruly, Stalinist and kleptocratic northern neighbour has played the better, nationalist game – the olive branch offered weeks before the game, the huge military parade complete with goose-stepping soldiers on the eve of the Winter Olympics, and the charm offensive of Kim Yo Jong, are but a few examples of classic hijacking.

Second, Kim’s sister, it must be remembered is no diplomat. She is Vice Director of the Workers Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, with a remit of pumping good propaganda that venerates her basketball-loving brother, as well as the beloved State. The objective observer is left with the impression that the North is playing a complex, multi-dimensional game aimed at different audiences: domestic, Korean, regional and international.

Third, the sports diplomacy on show in Pyeongchang is not new. It is downright old-fashioned, Machiavellian and traditional. Sport is being employed – by both the North, the South and the stony-faced Mr. Pence – as a ‘continuation of policy by other means’, to borrow from Clausewitz. The North hasn’t had a change of heart or policy because of some two-week snow festival on its doorstep.

The DPRK policy has not changed since the time of Kim’s grandfather: survive, profit, and drive a wedge between the American, Japanese, and South Korean alliance….by any means possible, sport included. Coubertin would, no doubt, be suitably appalled and thrilled at the same time.

Stuart Murray is an Associate Professor at Bond University and Global Fellow at The Academy of Sport, Edinburgh University, and author of Sports Diplomacy: Origins, Theory and Practice (Routledge, 2018).

Sport for peace in a post- conflict Colombia

Sport for Development and Peace programme in Ciudad Bolivar in Bogota.

Sport for Development and Peace programme in Ciudad Bolivar in Bogota.

By Dr Alexander Cárdenas, PhD

If properly managed and articulated, sport could make a modest, yet tangible contribution to Colombia’s post-conflict era. 

Colombia has experienced the longest-running internal conflict in the Western hemisphere. Extending for fifty years, the confrontation between government forces, guerillas and paramilitaries has caused a profound fragmentation of society and a devastating loss of human life. In 2012 a series of exploratory talks between the government of president Santos and the FARC guerilla began in Cuba with the aim to find a political solution to the armed conflict. With Norway and Cuba as guarantors, and a number of governments supporting the talks, this has been the first serious attempt in a decade to bring the two major actors of the conflict to the negotiating table.

Key Facts at August 2015 

  • The National Center for Historical Memory indicates that between 1958 and 2010, 220,000 people have been killed in the Colombian conflict (with 81 percent being civilian casualties).
  • 5,7 million have been displaced.
  • 900,000 have been assassinated.
  • 147,000 have been victims of forced disappearance.
  • Because of the internal conflict and rural violence, Colombia is home to the second largest internally displaced population in the world.
  • A surveyed conducted during the 2014 Brazil World Cup and featured on the New York Times online edition set out to explore the perception of football fans in nineteen countries. In relation to Colombia, the study found that 94 percent of Colombians were interested in football, the highest percentage of all countries surveyed.
  • 94% percent of Colombians believe football is important or very important for the nation.
  • During 1949 and 1954, a period known as El Dorado, Colombia’s football league was the strongest and best-paid in the world.
  • Bogota, Colombia’s capital, is home to the largest bicycle network (ciclovía) in the world.
  • Colombia has a strong sport-for-development tradition which began more than two decades ago.


Columbia- national football stadium in Bogota

Columbia- national football stadium in Bogota

Peace-building and sport in Colombia

Efforts at fostering peace are not restricted to finding a political solution to the hostilities but a peace movement largely associated with civil society seeks the mobilisation of all sectors of Colombian society to act in favour of peace through a variety of efforts and initiatives.

Increasingly, cultural and artistic expressions and notably sport, have been acknowledged by political leaders, international organisations and civil society as powerful allies to advancing peace-building in this nation.

Interest in exploring the role of sport as a tool for peace within the particular conflict context of Colombia is gaining momentum. Evidence of this is provided by the increase in the number of sport-based programmes and interventions that use sport as a tool to promote peace in communities affected by violence and conflict, as well as by an upsurge in newspaper and magazine reports, TV and radio shows, seminars and forums informing the public on the sport for development and peace (SDP) phenomenon and showcasing the progress made by organisations operating in this field.

There are a variety of ways in which sport has made a contribution to building peace in this nation afflicted by five decades of violence and war. Sport-based initiatives promoted by NGOs (e.g. Colombianitos, Tiempo de Juego, Fútbol Con Corazón, Goles por la Paz), governmental programs (e.g. Golombiao, Gestores del Deporte) and the international community (notably UNDP, UNICEF, German International Cooperation Agency, Inter-American Development Bank, Peace and Sport) have all positively impacted the lives of thousands of children and youth across Colombia, while at the same time, raising awareness of the potential of sport as a vehicle to foster the values that are generally associated with peace such as non-violence, open dialogue, understanding and respect.

The enthusiasm and expectation that sport generates as a social cohesion tool must be coupled with a pragmatic understanding of the advantages and limitations of sport as a promoter of positive change within Colombia’s conflict dynamics, and even more so – since a peace deal can be reached as early as this year – within a potential post-conflict scenario.

Post-conflict and sport

There are critical issues that need to be addressed in order to take advantage of the opportunities that sport may offer in building a post-conflict nation.

Since sport is not a holistic peace-building and development tool, it is advised that SDP interventions and programmes should be embedded and operate within greater regional and national peace and development objectives and in conjunction with non-sport-based programmes.

The momentum that sport generates in Colombia as a peace tool needs to be sustained with substantive political reform. This may entail not only developing specific public policy on sport within the post-conflict context, but in addition, current programmes and interventions must be redesigned to meet the challenges that the post-conflict phase may pose.

Of particular interest is examining how sport can assist in reintegrating combatants back to civilian life and in providing psychosocial recovery and creating economic opportunities for victims of war.

A recent study conducted by the author found that SDP officials – including trainers and coaches – perceived themselves as peacemakers or peace facilitators.

Given this, officials and trainers operating with NGOs may enhance their peace-making skills by receiving formal instruction from academic institutions and practitioners whose work gravitate around areas such as peace-building and conflict resolution.

Collaboration between academic institutions (in training personnel and assisting foundations in designing, implementing and evaluating SDP programs) and NGOs operating in this field is yet to happen and is strongly recommended. Moreover, academic institutions can critically reflect on the possibilities and limitations offered by sport as a peace tool with the aim of improving sport-based interventions.

Finally, as the international community turns its eyes and resources on Colombia and its post-conflict era, material resources and technical assistance can be leveraged in order  to support post-conflict SDP initiatives via international cooperation schemes.


Sport will not put an end to Colombia’s five-decade war but it can make a modest and tangible contribution to building (and ideally, sustaining) peace in this nation.

A thorough analysis of the advantages and limitations of sport as a viable peace tool is necessary. It is also paramount to successfully mobilize the diverse stakeholders involved in the SDP sector and develop clear policy on the social role of sport with a focus on Colombia’s post-conflict phase.