Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, famously said, “The most important thing is not to win, but to take part.” Now that North Korea has agreed to participate in the upcoming Winter Olympics in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang, that phrase has taken on new meaning.
Throughout the history of the modern Olympic Games, separating politics from sports has been impossible. Perhaps it is not even desirable. After all, one of the Games’ primary objectives is to put sports at the service of peace and human dignity.
More broadly, sports have long played a politically constructive role on the world stage. At the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, an American player hitched a ride on the Chinese team’s bus, inaugurating what became known as “ping-pong diplomacy.” Soon after, at the height of the Cultural Revolution no less, Mao Zedong invited the US table tennis team to China, paving the way for US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit there in 1972.
At the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships, again hosted by Japan, North and South Korea formed a joint team, and beat the odds to win a gold medal in the women’s competition. The camaraderie developed by the players helped them defeat the Chinese team in the final. For a brief moment, jubilant Koreans forgot their divisions.
In fact, South Korea may even owe its modern democracy, at least in part, to the Olympic Games. In 1987, with the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics quickly approaching, South Koreans succeeded in pushing then-President Chun Doo-hwan’s military regime to hold a democratic election. This was a striking turn of events, given that Chun had conceived the Olympic bid as an opportunity to improve his dictatorship’s domestic and foreign image. Without the approaching Games, and the international pressure that they brought, South Korea’s democratic transition might not have taken place, at least not as peacefully or rapidly as it did.
But the 1988 Seoul Games also had a dark side. North Korea, unable to reach an agreement with the South about how to share the event, ended up boycotting it altogether. And in 1987, the same year the Chun dictatorship collapsed, a Korean Air flight was downed, most likely by the North Korean regime, in an effort to disrupt the approaching election and discourage other countries from participating in the Games.
In the end, the 1988 Games deepened the divide between the two Koreas, and the brief moment of shared triumph in 1991 would not be enough to reverse the trend. The South went on to open itself to the world, and the North hardened its isolationism – a process that intensified after the dissolution of the Soviet Union – and pursued the path of nuclear proliferation.
Of course, North Korea’s decision to stage a boycott in 1988 was hardly unprecedented. Historically, many countries have boycotted the Games, or even used them as a platform to promote values contrary to the Olympic spirit. That was certainly the case when Adolf Hitler’s regime hosted the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
In 1945, George Orwell looked back at the 1936 Games and observed that, “serious sport … is war minus the shooting.” The Games, he noted, are “bound up with the rise of nationalism – that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.”
Orwell wasn’t far off. At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, for example, the connection between sports and nationalism was on display. The Games were an organizational success, complete with brilliant new architecture. The fact that China ended up winning more gold medals than any other country undoubtedly heightened national pride. And the protests against China’s treatment of Tibet during Olympic torch relays around the world fueled Chinese nationalism. Today, national pride is still a key focus for the political leader who supervised the Beijing Games: then-vice president and now-president of China, Xi Jinping.
Similarly, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi helped to breathe life into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s then-ailing regime. Three days before the closing ceremony, Putin launched his military intervention into Crimea.
Now the Games are returning to the turbulent Korean Peninsula, where the two Koreas remain formally at war 65 years after agreeing to an armistice. Before the North’s recent decision to participate in the Pyeongchang Games, many were understandably worried about a repeat of 1988, or that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would use the occasion to put on one of his military shows of force. That is, after all, what happened at the 2002 World Cup, co-hosted by South Korea and Japan. Toward the end of the tournament, which was marked by an extraordinary performance by the South Korean national team, North Korea started a naval battle with the South.
Fortunately, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s thoughtful, conciliatory attitude, which Kim seemed to reciprocate in his New Year’s address, has created a slight thaw. The South’s efforts to ease tensions by postponing joint military exercises with the United States, like the North’s decision to participate in the Games, should be welcomed. And, indeed, since then, there has been a steady stream of good news: the two countries will march together at the opening ceremony, and will even form a combined women’s hockey team.
To be sure, one must always question the Kim regime’s motives. In the past, the North’s friendly gestures have not led to meaningful concessions or progress toward peace. Given that the two Koreas marched together in three Olympic Games since 2000, prudence is advisable. But we should resist the urge to succumb to fatalism, and instead remain supportive of North Korea’s overtures.
The North Korean nuclear threat cannot be managed without negotiations. To that end, the Pyeongchang Games, coming just 30 years after the Seoul Games, may represent the best chance in years to get the process started. Let us hope that the North Korean athletes’ journey from Pyongyang to Pyeongchang bears diplomatic fruit, and that “the Peace Games,” as Moon calls them, will be remembered more for the North’s presence than for the final medal count.