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Society & Culture

How the Olympics Proved a Point about Politics

Sep 18, 2021
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

The Olympic Games operating as an avenue for reconciling national sentiments may come across as counterintuitive to some, given the hyper-competitiveness, intensity of sentiments, and flared-up nationalism that occurs alongside the Games every four years. 

Yet to characterise the Olympics as merely just another sporting competition would be somewhat of a misunderstanding. One extraordinarily moving episode was Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen’s match against China’s Chen Long. The Mandarin-speaking Danish player beat the defending Gold medallist to the prized title – a victory shortly followed by a passionate embrace between the two peers. Axelsen subsequently thanked Chen for being an inspiration and an icon. 

In many ways, Axelsen and Chen are united by a higher purpose – a shared devotion to and respect for the norms of sports. Indeed, at times where the world is bereft of sources of unity, is driven to fragments and embittered disputes by polarising stances and partisanship, sports offers a rare breather of fresh air, a unifying force that delights through its spectacle, championing of excellence, and embodying of an undying, unyielding spirit to conquer natural hurdles and barriers. Sports, in other words, could well serve as a coagulant with few alternatives to match. It allows us to set aside our identities and roots – in seeing value and dignity in those who come from drastically divergent backgrounds. 

In April 1971, an entourage of American table tennis players, alongside a select crop of journalists and aides, arrived at Beijing for a historic visit – the first by any American athletes since the People’s Republic of China’s establishment in 1949. The visit signified the early days of Ping Pong diplomacy – paving a critical way for Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. 

Five decades on, some may reasonably argue that the times have changed. The advent of digital and telecommunications, the rise of social media, and the increasingly egalitarian and open internet have rendered country-to-country communications as easy – if not easier – as hosting face-to-face dialogue back in the 1970s. Yet the underlying ethos remains the same: sports cuts through boundaries, brews a sense of shared and mutual respect across rival camps, and aids with providing the human touch to international diplomacy. A few lessons can be drawn from the recently concluded Olympics. 

The first is that face-to-face interactions – especially at times of COVID-19 – are vital. The embraces, handshakes, fist-bumps, and greetings adopted by athletes do not merely codify the universal language of sportsmanship – they also reflect the need for physical presence and engagement as a means of softening unduly hardened stances, of humanising the “Other”, and of offering credibility to the communicated messages. Formal diplomacy, especially when taking place over digital media or at a significant physical distance (even if nominally face-to-face), often lacks the passion and openness to unpredictability that sports features. This is also why the Ping Pong players played such a seminal role in thawing U.S.-China relations, to the point where Chairman Mao reportedly changed his mind over granting entry to the foreign entourage, upon seeing the news of the souvenirs and apparel exchange between the American and Chinese delegations in Japan. There is a temptation in international politics to see the other side as mortal enemies, as individuals deserving of and requiring active demonisation and castigation. Such mindsets would only foment – as opposed to curtail – the dangerous Manichaeism that has emerged over Sino-American relations. 

The second lesson is that there exists more in common between countries – including China and America – than political commentary and punditry often acknowledge. Attempts at politicising the Olympics – whether it be Chinese netizens asserting that China has won “more medals” than America under the “correct way of counting countries”; or American commentators alleging that China’s sporting excellence results allegedly from its authoritarian centralisation of resources – fundamentally miss the point. The point should not be about turning the Olympics into a Sputnik moment for either side – nor is that the most popular takeaway in the eyes of masses of both countries. Instead, the point rests with embracing the assiduous devotion and impeccable work ethic of individual athletes, players, as well as their coaches and the communities at large. Identifying such similarities would help diffuse tensions – especially ones that do not concern specific, discrete policy grievances, but merely emotive resentment and dislike. 

Finally, it is imperative that sporting events provide a conduit for track-II engagement and dialogue. There exists temptations in certain circles to transform the Olympics – and the hosting of it – into mere political speech-acts and ostentatious spectacles, designed to dazzle and impress. Yet what truly impresses, in my humble opinion, is not grandiose architecture or vociferous grand-standing. It is, instead, the demonstration that truly universal values, such as the embracing of excellence, the celebration of hard work, and acknowledgment of communal solidarity and identity – these values that truly transcend national and cultural boundaries, as opposed to merely being asserted as such – can and must withstand the challenges of political bickering and contestation. 

The upcoming Winter Olympics offers a vital chance for athletes of all nations to gather, assemble, and compete against one another on a level playing field. Grievances, disputes, and disagreements between countries are of course part and parcel of international politics. Yet whilst we’re at it, perhaps we would all benefit from keeping undue vitriol and acrimonious accusations out of the Olympic Games – this applies to any and all parties, as opposed to just the host. May sports prevail. 

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