Some suggest that the Olympics should be free of politics.
Those who argue this may have noble intentions – yet they neglect the fact that the Olympics are inherently political, and that to sever it from politics would be a futile task.
In staking out the claim that there exist universal values of Olympism – the pursuit of excellence, friendship, and respect – the Olympic Games embed within them emphatically political statements. They demonstrate that petty ideological squabbles and differences should be cast aside in favour of what brings us all together, qua humans; that the championing of one’s own national team should not come at the expense of fairness and egalitarian participation – more noble ends, and, above all, the celebration of camaraderie across different peoples irrespective of particular views or stances over contentious issues.
This statement of emphasis – in and of itself – is one of significance. It is, equally, political – for it demands and imposes limits to the bickering and skirmishes that constitute international politics. More substantially, it provides a platform, through the intense media coverage and discussion, for countries to make their stakes and positions clear as day.
Nevertheless, there remains a crucial difference between embracing the political potential of sports, and politicising sports. The former may involve leveraging and drawing upon sports to articulate political ideals, but the messages and methods employed are always constrained by and rooted in the universal values outlined above. The latter, on the other hand, involves malicious, self-serving politicking that systemically contravenes what undergirds true sports.
An example for the former consists of China’s search for a softer, more dynamic and approachable image through its hosting of the two Olympics. The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics were held off the back of a string of international territorial skirmishes and confrontations, as well as growing concerns over the implications of China’s continued ascent. The Olympics proved vital in highlighting the cultural strengths and diversity of the country, and in contesting some of the unidimensional, detracting rhetoric targeting China in international discourse. They also showcased the infrastructural strength and creative resilience of the Chinese public – whose voices were heard not through rigid, carefully curated loudspeakers, but through organic conversations and interactions with tourists, visitors, and the entourages in attendance.
It's the year 2022 – and the world is radically different from where it was 14 years ago. China’s diplomacy has taken a considerably trenchant turn over the past decade, with a greater focus on projecting its strength and defending what its leadership construes to be core interests and vital elements of the truth abroad. This has indubitably unsettled some, and left others pondering over whether Chinese foreign policy objectives have systemically shifted from those it had espoused in 2008.
Therefore, the Winter Games could offer China the opportunity to showcase a side that is less than ubiquitous in its recent rhetoric – quiet, measured confidence, which seeks to include, as opposed to exclude; which seeks to engage, as opposed to closing itself off from the outside. Such benign soft power development does not contradict the core values of the International Olympic Committee.
Yet the Devil, of course, rests with the details of execution. The dangers of treating the Olympics as a political exercise lie not with recognising and harnessing their political symbolism – they rest with politicising the Games as a platform for nationalistic, triumphalist, or accusatory rhetoric. There are two ways in which this risk has arisen over recent weeks.
The first concerns an over-zealous attempt at attributing successes on the playing field to specific political institutions and cultures. Whether it be American commentators framing the victories of their athletes as owing to the “freedom-loving nature” of American civil society, or Russian commentary that seeks to couple the performances of their athletes with Russia’s international standing amidst recent tensions, or, indeed, a small yet vocal segment of Chinese citizenry that took to bullying and attacking individual athletes, such as Zhu Yi, for their ostensible underperformance. Whilst the domestic criticisms of Zhu Yi were swiftly removed, the broader point remains – the attempts at turning discussions over sports into squabbles over political ideologies, may suit the agenda of political pundits and nationalistic zealots, yet fundamentally do no justice to the Games themselves.
The second revolves around the equally dangerous surge in ethnonationalist rhetoric concerning the origins and values of athletes. Whilst Eileen Gu – skiing for China – was widely hailed as a national hero of China, Nathan Chen – who skated for America – was castigated for having “insulted China” and betrayed his country. Both are Chinese Americans – of Chinese ethnicity and a largely Chinese-American upbringing.
It’s high time that we eschew the rabid nationalistic outlooks that force us – as much as the individual athletes they spotlight – to choose “sides” in an imaginary “conflict.” Sino-American synergy and cooperation have made the lives of millions across both sides of the Pacific tangibly better. These include migrants who have made their homes in China or America – originally hailing from the other state; yet also those who self-identify as belonging to a trans-Pacific diaspora community. Chauvinists may want us to selectively pick and choose whom we identify with, not on grounds of their wishes, but on grounds of our projection. This, in turn, is ugly, damning politicisation.
Finally, if any country is to cultivate soft power through engagement with sporting events and championships, it must come to recognise that soft power best thrives where civil society takes the lead. Having politicians and policy wonks analyse the Games to death will not contribute towards an amelioration of resentment and antagonism between countries. Nor, indeed, would official propaganda that attributes each and every success to the state. What is needed, instead, is room for civil society initiatives and discourse to grow organically.
Fifty years ago, Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai met with President Richard Nixon – a seminal meeting that yielded the thawing of Sino-American relations and commencement of the most important bilateral partnership in the world today. That meeting was the culmination of a series of events, which could be traced to Ping Pong diplomacy. To insist that sports must be rid of politics, is frankly unrealistic. The question, instead, is – how we can channel sports in achieving maximally desirable outcomes for peoples all across the world, as opposed to one, or two select parties.