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The Olympics, International Geo-politics and Soft Power

Politics is everywhere, sport being no exception. Even before the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics there have been a number of diplomatic faux pas. South Africa was on the receiving end of a blunder that saw the apartheid-period national anthem played at the start of the women’s hockey match between SA and Britain.

A later incident saw the football (soccer) match between North Korea and Colombia delayed following the displaying of the South Korean flag alongside the players of the North Korean team. A similar bungle saw the weightlifting teams from North and South Korea allocated the same time and venue for their respective training sessions. Although these may be unintended logistical errors, they create political embarrassment for the host country.

These mega sporting events provide a challenge for both the host and participating countries, not only in displaying athletic competence, but in the ability of states to navigate the complex world of international geo-politics.

The long history of the Olympics (with records placing the first games in approximately 776 BC) has seen the event frequently used as a stage for political agendas; where international geo-politics has been played out and power relations tested. This has included a number of boycotts of the event. Examples include China’s decision to withdraw from the 1956 Melbourne games following the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) recognition of Taiwan as well as the 1976 Montreal games, where over 30 African states stayed away in response to New Zealand’s international rugby tour to apartheid South Africa.

The tit-for-tat boycotting of the Olympics during the Cold War also saw a number of western states fail to participate in the 1980 Moscow games, while the USSR did not participate in the 1984 Los Angeles games. The Olympics have also been witness to more serious acts of violence and terrorism including the 1972 Munich games, where 11 Israeli athletes lost their lives and the bomb blast at the Atlanta games in 1996.

The Olympics, however, offers numerous opportunities for diplomatic engagement. It provides an opportunity for parties to engage in a context outside of formal political processes, where protocols and adhering to ‘political correctness’ may inhibit dialogue. Indeed, there has been media speculation that the 2012 London Olympics could see British Prime Minister, David Cameron, seeking to engage Russian President Vladimir Putin on the question of Syria.

Despite the often ‘hard’ physical nature of sports, the Olympics is one of the largest for a for states to demonstrate their soft power capabilities’ where winning a particular event, or holding an Olympic gold demonstrates the ‘character’ of a country. As Joseph Nye points out, soft power is about the ‘attractiveness’ of a country, where other countries seek to follow its lead because they admire its values and seek to emulate its examples.

Doing well at an Olympics has its own implications for boosting a state’s prestige on the international stage, a point not lost on the Chinese in hosting the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It saw considerable pressure on Chinese athletes to achieve medals in demonstrating the country’s growing international competitiveness. Indeed, there have already been studies comparing the number of medals achieved by developed and developing countries in demonstrating a changing international order.

For instance, a study conducted by Sheffield Hallam University has considered the difference in medal totals between the G7 states (US, UK, France, Italy, Germany, Japan and Canada ) and the emerging BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), in reflecting the changing geo-political trends in broader international relations. The research highlights the closing gap in terms of gold medals won, where 1996 saw the G7 having twice the number of medals compared to BRICS countries. Yet by 2008 this difference had been reduced to approximately a gap of 10%.

These athletes are part of South Africa’s sport diplomacy, showcasing the ideals, values and norms of the country as a whole

The Olympics is not just about soft power by states, it is also about people power. These mega sporting events have provided an opportunity for people to express their resistance to state policies that violate accepted norms and values.

Certainly attempts by Adolf Hitler to demonstrate his theory of racial superiority during the 1936 Berlin games were crushed by African-American Jesse Owens, who went on to win four gold medals. South Africa is also a key example of how sports was used as a means of further isolating Pretoria in response to widespread international condemnation of the domestic policy of apartheid, with the country officially banned from participating in the Olympics in 1964 until 1992.

Perhaps it is the Olympic Truce Wall that best symbolizes efforts to link peace and sport in international relations. The idea of the Olympic truce was pursued more vigorously by the United Nations General Assembly as a tool in international relations since the 1990s, built on the pursuit of international peace and security. This follows from the historic Olympic Truce, which called for cessation of hostilities seven days prior to the opening of the Olympics and continued seven days after the closing ceremony, to allow for safe travel to and from the games.

Since the 2000 games in Sydney, the IOC has aimed to use the Peace Wall to inspire ‘peace through sport’. One of the significances of the London 2012 games is that this is the first year that all 193 member states of the UN have supported the Olympic Truce Resolution. This year the resolution calls on member states to ‘use sport as a tool to promote peace, dialogue and reconciliation in areas of conflict during and beyond the Olympic and Paralympic Games period’.

For Team South Africa this is not just an opportunity to meet individual aspiration, or government’s target of achieving 12 medals in 2012. It is more than that. These athletes are part of South Africa’s sport diplomacy, showcasing the ideals, values and norms of the country as a whole within the wider geo-political environment. While the Olympics allow for healthy competition, it also supports bridge-building between states.

This forms a central component of South Africa’s own foreign policy approach, and one which Team South Africa will be carrying along with the national flag as they navigate both the athletic and political worlds of the Olympics. In the words of Nelson Mandela, sport “has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else can. Sport can awaken hope where there was previously only despair”.

Lesley Masters is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD). Follow her on Twitter @LesleyIGD or find her at www.igd.org.za

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