The Politics of the Olympics

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To paraphrase Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stevens in their majority opinion in McConnell vs. FEC (2004), when it comes to politics, money—like water—always finds a way in. Lately, the same could be said about politics and culture—the former keeps seeping into the latter. If you think the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, (beginning on February 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea) might be different, think again.

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Part of the allure of the Olympics is the myth that the games are somehow above politics. Most of us are vaguely aware of the games’ origin story, wherein competing city-states of ancient Greece, for a short time, traded war for sport. The truth, however, is more complicated. While the city-state of Elis (the host of the original Olympics) maintained neutrality in war, it didn’t maintain neutrality in politics: it once banning Sparta from the games during the Peloponnesian War (Elis sided with Athens, Sparta’s enemy).

Nevertheless, the modern International Olympic Committee has worked to buttress the image of the Olympics as free from war and politics. Section five of the Olympic Charter states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”  World leaders have also invoked the Olympic myth, but only when it works to their advantage. When questioned about Russian laws against “gay propaganda” in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Games, Russian President Vladimir Putin complained about the political nature of reporters’ questions, saying that the Olympics “are intended to depoliticize the most pressing international issues and open additional ways to build bridges.” This is a cynical invocation, as Putin’s motives for hosting the games were political. As Michael Newcity, a scholar of Slavic and Eurasian studies, told The Atlantic’s J. Weston Phippen, Putin intended the Olympics to be “a coming out party [for Russia] as a great power.”

The reality is, for better or worse, that nothing important can remain apolitical, and the Olympics are undoubtedly important. Because so much money is spent on the games, so much publicity surrounds them, and so many countries participate, they are an obvious proxy—or pawn—in the game of international realpolitik. This has manifested in many bans and boycotts throughout the last century.

It’s impossible to know if the 2018 Games will be particularly fraught, but the ingredients are certainly there. The participation of a North Korean delegation, which will include Kim Yong Nam, president of North Korea’s parliament, and Kim Yo Jung, Kim Jong Un’s sister, is cause for optimism. However, the United States has shown no sign of softening its stance towards North Korea. In a conspicuously political statement, Vice President Mike Pence is taking the father of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died in North Korean captivity, as his personal guest. What’s more, the games have driven a wedge between “the West” and Russia, which is banned from sending a team due to doping violations (certain Russian athletes can still participate independently). Putin has called the ban a conspiracy against Russia perpetrated by the West—and those are just the obvious sources of tension. A multitude of unforeseen events, even a presidential tweet, could hijack the world’s attention and make us nostalgic for a simpler time when the games were above politics.

A time, in other words, that never existed.

If you would like to learn more about the politics surrounding the 2018 Olympic Games, watch this video (top) and download this presentation.

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