Olympic years have held a salient place in history, for during the celebration of the Olympic Games, participating city states (in the ancient era i.e. 776 B.C. - 393 A.D.) or member states (in the modern era i.e. 1896 onwards), would agree to observe an Olympic truce. The truce is a commitment to the cessation of hostilities and the deferment of conflict, to allow athletes to travel safely to participate in the Games. In the context of the universal crisis presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games, it is important to ponder, “Can the Olympics continue to serve as the institution of peace that is billed as, in the face of divergent political interests among states?”
The Olympics have long been recognized by many as the world’s highest international sporting event where athletes from all over the world come together, show their excellence, build friendship and convey the message of world peace. The Olympic Movement – a concept led by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the modern Olympic Games – stresses the mission of “building a peaceful and better world, by educating youth through sport practiced in accordance with Olympism and its values”, and agrees to uphold the principles of “peace, fair play and fair contest with the view to creating a peaceful society with less violence and competition.”
Such sentiment has also been echoed by the United Nations (UN), in the form of an Olympic Truce resolution, passed every two years ahead of the Games since 1993. The resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly, since the Lillehammer Games in 1994 to the most recently held PyeongChang Games in 2018, have unanimously called for “all hostilities to cease during the Games, thereby mobilizing the youth of the world in the cause of peace,” reaffirming the ancient Greek tradition of the Olympics. Participating in the Games, therefore, meant more than just competing in sports; it is a commitment, which member states offer, that they will contribute to world peace and play fair. However, most of the Games held in the modern Olympic era have failed to live up to the Olympic values and ideals, and sadly, the disappointments are hard to be forgotten.
Olympics as a Political Tool
The Olympics have often been used by national leaders for their political interests in ways far from promoting peace. Back in the Cold War era, U.S. president Jimmy Carter boycotted the 1980 Moscow Summer Games in order to protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This led to a total of 65 countries not participating in the Games. The Soviets retaliated in the following Olympics hosted by the U.S., by pulling out of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles along with its communist allies, and blaming “hostile anti-Soviet propaganda” designed for the Games in pursuit of American political aims. The world has also seen politically motivated terrorists taking advantage of the Olympic occasion to carry out attacks. Among the numerous incidents of terrorism during the Games, the most infamous have been a massacre during the 1972 Munich Summer Games by Palestinian terrorists, which killed 11 Israeli Olympic team members, and a pipe bomb explosion during the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, by an American terrorist with an intention to globally shame the U.S. for legalizing abortion, which killed two people and injured over 100 others.
Boycotts and terrorism are not the only political expedients that have abandoned the Olympic spirit throughout history. Host nations creating nothing but turbulent scenes prior to the Games have also been commonly observed; for instance, the Mexican government opened fire on student protesters, killing hundreds merely ten days ahead of the 1968 Mexico City Summer Games, and China suppressed Tibetans demanding independence with force before the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. Besides, the most expensive Games in Olympic history, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “pet project,” the 2014 Sochi Winter Games – staged to display the nation’s strength and Putin’s leadership – was in no way aligned with the value of fair play as a Kremlin-run doping scandal utterly killed the Olympic spirit and infuriated the world.
“Peace Games” in South Korea?
Some may counter by arguing that in fact, there were times when the Olympics did play an amicable role, bringing nations at odds together, such as the latest Winter Games hosted by PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018. Then newly elected South Korean president Moon Jae-in, a son of North Korean refugees, sought to build new relations with Pyongyang through the PyeongChang Games; the two Koreas marched together under one flag at the opening ceremony and fielded a joint women’s ice hockey team. It is undeniable that the Games opened a window of opportunity with the North. The dialogue, initiated thanks to the Games, between President Moon and Chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea later led to two sets of denuclearization talks between the U.S. and North Korea, which even went as far as creating an anticipation of the official end of the Korean War, which has left the two Koreas separated since the 1950s.
Unfortunately, however, marching and competing together at the Olympics simply wasn’t enough for the long-awaited peace on the Korean Peninsula. Seoul and Pyongyang are still technically at war, and the North’s missile and nuclear threats have resumed. If anything, bilateral relations have gotten worse since North Korea detonated the inter-Korean liaison office – South Korea’s de facto embassy in the North and the symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation following the PyeongChang Games – in June. The current South Korean government seeks to host another Olympic Games, but this time with North Korea in 2032, hoping to reignite the peace initiative. While this perfectly conforms to the Olympic mission in theory, the attempt is likely to face major challenges. Besides the significant costs, working to lift or ease the UN sanctions against Pyongyang for inter-Korean cooperation on Olympic infrastructure would be imperative. However, it could prove insurmountable, as it is dependent on North Korea’s nuclear issue.
Limitations of the Olympics
Nevertheless, selling the concept of a “peace Olympics,” has been a successful marketing strategy for the IOC and its establishment of the International Olympic Truce Foundation in 2000 clearly underpins this. Since hosting the Games comes with an extremely high price tag—as a 2013 study found, every Olympics held from 1960 to 2012 experienced “an average cost overrun in real terms of 179 percent,” — it is peace, packaged as an “intangible” or “soft” legacy that the Olympic Games produce, which cleverly justifies hosting the costly event on a regular basis. Stories we read and hear about Olympic facilities turning into white elephants and the severe environmental damages caused by the Games prove that the Olympics is an unviable business model, not to mention its declining popularity and audience. This is why the IOC has had to glam up the unidentifiable and unmeasurable consequences of the Games.
From observing episodes of history, and from understanding the limitations around the positioning of the Games, we now know that for any nation, promoting peace through the Olympics can’t come before pursuing its political and economic interests. Besides, ever since COVID-19 shook the world and caused the postponement of the Tokyo Games from 2020 to 2021, it has become much harder to foresee cooperation among countries through the international sporting event. For example, three Asian foreign ministers from former and upcoming Olympic host countries – South Korea, Japan and China – virtually met, unanimously supported a “complete” Tokyo Games and discussed “cooperation” on the coronavirus pandemic in March. However, it was around that time when the three neighbors were also imposing entry or travel restrictions on each other over COVID-19. Likewise, it is only to be expected that the great noble cause of the Olympics, “unity and peace,” as vague as it sounds, can be easily neglected and perhaps won’t be enough to yield the world peace it professes.
Kimberly Kim is a Rotary Foundation Global Grant Scholar for Peace and Conflict Resolution and will be graduating from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs in October 2020. She used to work for the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games as an interpreter, translator and communication manager. Her research interests include peace and security, and nuclear nonproliferation in the Asia-Pacific region with a focus on inter-Korean relations, US-ROK relations and US-DPRK relations. Her writings have appeared in The Diplomat and South China Morning Post. She also wrote South Korea country reports for The Asan Forum and published an analysis in the Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies Journal by the Korea Economic Institute of America.