The 2018 Winter Olympics are starting next week which is great because I love watching the Olympics. The Winter Olympics are especially fun because they have so many weird ass sports like curling* and luge. The Summers Olympics also have their share of ridiculous sports but I mainly watch them for the wrestling since that is one of the only times that real wrestling is on TV (or at least available to stream online). Of course the Olympics are also major political events. The International Olympic Committee is itself an international organization and therefore a political actor and its process of selecting host sites is chalked through with politics (and often corruption). The games themselves have also served as a place for politics with boycotts, protests, terrorist attacks, and diplomacy having all been features of many Olympics. It’s the latter of these that is the most intriguing at this point because North and South Korea have announced they will march under one flag (although now that looks like that might not happen) and field a combined women’s hockey team for the upcoming winter games in Pyeongchang. Its not the first time North Korea and South Korea have used sports diplomacy to pursue their interests. Since their division into separate states both sides have used sports as an important venue to use to push toward reconciliation (however minor).
In the article “Sports as a catalyst of cooperation” the author Giwoong Jung examines the entire history of North Korean and South Korean sports diplomacy. He concludes that for these diplomatic events to be successful (defined as leading to further dialogue and talks) the strategic choices for both sides need to align. Both sides have to go into these events with the intention of trying to pursue further dialogue and not as an opportunity to “shout unilaterally” at each other for these events to yield further dialogue. Its unclear at this point if both sides are approaching the olympics as a catalyst for further dialogue. With the insane bellicosity of the Trump administration perhaps both sides see an opportunity to pursue dialogue at the expense of the U.S. The blowback the South Korean government has gotten since the announcement regarding the joint women’s hockey team is one indicator however that we probably shouldn’t expect much of a breakthrough from these Olympics.
So only two cheers for sports diplomacy because while sports provide a useful venue for low stakes diplomacy those events don’t always lead to further dialogue or breakthroughs. Its also unrealistic to expect a big breakthrough from any one diplomatic event whether it involves sports or not. Diplomacy is like eating spinach, it might be bland and boring but if you keep eating it consistently you will be better off in the long run.
* I mean look at this shit