There is nothing new about sports diplomacy nor anything genuine about North Korea’s attempts to build bridges with its sworn enemies. Dictators, it has to be remembered, love sport just as much as everybody else.
The topic of sports diplomacy at the 2018 PyeongChang ‘Peace’ Olympics has made headline news the world over. Newspapers, television and social media posts are full of stories about North Korean sports diplomacy, Kim Yo-jong’s handshake with Moon Jae-in, the thawing of the frosty North/South relationship between the Koreas, a grim US Vice President Mike Pence saying “we’re not playing”, and, of course, Kim Yo-jong’s creepy automaton cheerleading squad. Most of these stories, however, miss the mark by quite some distance.
The relationship between sport and diplomacy can be traced back over millennia, way beyond the ancient Olympiad, which is where most analyses of the relationship begin. Games, play, running and sport are literally woven into human DNA and have been part of all periods of the human story. This is why modern humans still play, watch and enjoy ‘caveman’ sports: running, wrestling, boxing, fighting, fishing, hunting and spear-chucking (although today the latter is usually referred to as javelin).
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 famous 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 civilisation, 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.
South African President Nelson 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 if 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 with 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.
The modern Olympics are similar in nature, spirit and purpose to the ancient games. Their architect, the French educator and historian, Pierre de Coubertin, intentionally infused them with the ancient spirit. In Paris 1894, 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 20th century with a gleam of joyous hope.”
These qualities are manifest in the Pyeonchang games, though sometimes it’s hard to detect them beyond all 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 Olympics. Curiously, every aspect of the Olympic Games—from security to athletes’ accommodation, rules and regulations—is infused with the ideal of Olympism, 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.” In such a context, Olympic sport is much more than just competing, winning and representing a nation abroad. It is both a vehicle to, and representation of, philosophy, education, social responsibilities and universal and spiritual ethical principles.
The Olympic Games—ancient or modern, summer or winter—also have an overt political character. While clearly a raving sports-idealist, Coubertin was also a savvy 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 Aron Beacom, author of International Diplomacy and the Olympic Movement, notes, was “inherently political with internationalist aspirations,” and “sensitive to the power of nationalist aspiration.” In other words, the Olympics are a classic example of the mix of sport, politics and, by extension, diplomacy.
Which brings us back to the North Korea and South Korea sporting detente occurring at the PyeongChang games. Before getting carried away by all the talk of “peace at last”, it is important to remember a few hard truths about the relationship between sport, politics and diplomacy. Sure, the Olympic 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, it’s the unruly, Stalinist and kleptocratic northern neighbour has played the better nationalist game. The olive branch offered weeks before the event, 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, it must be remembered that Kim’s sister is no diplomat. She is the vice-director of the Workers Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, with a remit to pump out propaganda that venerates her portly, basketball-loving brother, as well as the beloved state. And, if there’s any time in between, Kim Yo-jong spends it demonising the North’s enemies (and there are many). The objective observer is left with the impression that Pyongyang is playing a complex, multi-dimensional game aimed at different audiences: domestic, Korean, regional and international.
Third, and related, the sports diplomacy on show in PyeongChang is not new. It is downright old-fashioned, Machiavellian and traditional. Sport is being employed—by the North, the South and stony-faced Mike Pence—as a “continuation of policy by other means”, to borrow from Carl von Clausewitz. The North hasn’t had a change of heart or policy because of some two-week snow festival on its doorstep. Remember the missile tests, the fratricide, the “dotard” insult (which, to be fair, was not only original but deserved)? North Korea’s 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, a fellow at the Academy of Sport, Edinburgh University, and author of ‘Sports Diplomacy: Origins, Theory and Practice’.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.