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 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).