Good sport: international relations

By its very nature sport is fiercely competitive, but global events such as the Olympic Games have provided the opportunity for nations to heal rifts and seek peace. Vision reports

The power of sport can often stretch far beyond the playing field, affecting real change in international society. In April 1971, for instance, when Cold War tensions between the East and West were at their height and the Vietnam War was still raging, a simple game of table tennis helped thaw the notoriously frosty diplomatic relations between the United States and China, which eventually ended the Communist state’s isolation from the outside world.

This so-called “ping pong diplomacy” saw the American table tennis team – which was in Nagoya, Japan, for the World Championships – receive a surprise invitation from their Chinese counterparts to visit the People’s Republic and play an exhibition match. At the time, this was a hugely significant move, as no Americans had been invited to China since the Communist takeover in 1949. Time magazine subsequently labelled it “the ping heard around the world”, although the players themselves were unaware of the impact their matches would have.

Global events allow us to cross the barriers and divides between us

Professor Margaret Somerville, Founding Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University

“I had no idea what was going on,” admitted the late Zhuang Zedong, a key player in the Chinese team. “I was merely a ping pong player.”

George Braithwaite, one of the American players, added: “It soon began to dawn on us that this trip had much more significance than simply a table tennis outing.” The matches drew worldwide media attention and ultimately laid the groundwork for the visit of US President Richard Nixon to China in 1972, which would become one of the most important events in America’s post-war history. It marked the beginning of the end of 20 years of frosty relations and paved the way for the restoration of diplomatic ties between the two countries in 1979.

As far back as the eighth century BC in Greece, the ancient Olympics featured a traditional truce, or ‘ekecheiria’, which was initiated by three kings – Iphitus of Elis, Cleisthenes of Pisa and Lycurgus of Sparta – ensuring that the host city would not be attacked, and athletes and spectators could travel safely to and from the Games. The truce helped break the constant cycle of war between the Greek city-states, establishing a window of peace to make the Games possible, with all wars suspended and armies prohibited from threatening the Games.

Window of opportunity

With the modern Olympic Games now a truly global affair, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to revive the ancient concept of the ‘Olympic Truce’ in 1992 in the hope that future editions of the Games would help encourage peaceful and diplomatic solutions to the conflicts around the world by creating a similar window of opportunity for dialogue and reconciliation. The Olympics has since seen many examples of the Games being used to promote global peace.

At the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, athletes from North and South Korea marched into the stadium together under a unified flag, in an arrangement brokered by the IOC. The two teams also mixed freely before the ceremony, travelling to the stadium in the same team buses.

“It’s not so complicated to march together,” South Korean IOC member Kim Un-yong said at the time. “We will do everything to promote peace, dialogue and cooperation.”

In 2008, meanwhile, the armed conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia threatened to overshadow the Games in Beijing, until athletes from each country used the Olympic platform to demonstrate their solidarity.

During the medal ceremony for the women’s 10m shooting event, the Russian silver medallist Natalia Paderina, and the bronze medal-winner Nino Salukvadze, from Georgia, warmly embraced each other on the podium before calling for an end to their respective countries’ military action.

“There should be no hatred among athletes and people,” said Salukvadze. “Politicians should straighten out the situation today, and if they don’t, we’ll have to get involved.” Newly retired IOC President Jacques Rogge later picked out the athletes’ embrace as one of his most memorable moments from the Games. “I think this kind of sportsmanship and fair play and brotherhood is remarkable,” he said.

Promoting unity

Over the years, more and more countries have chosen to sign up to the Olympic Truce, with all 193 United Nations member states endorsing the agreement in 2012.

So-called mega-events, such as the Olympics and the football World Cup, also help bring ordinary people together – regardless of their nationality or religious beliefs – as they gather en masse to support their favourite team or cheer on their country’s athletes, creating a unified global community for the duration of the sporting spectacle. The 2010 World Cup final, for instance, attracted a worldwide audience of 909.6 million, while an estimated two billion people watched Usain Bolt win 100m gold at the 2012 Olympics in London.

“Global events are much more important than they were in the past, because they can allow us to cross the barriers and divides between us, which are more obviously present in our daily lives and more numerous than in previous generations,” explains Professor Margaret Somerville, Founding Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Montreal.

“That crossing is essential if we are to find as many shared values as possible, whether it is within our own societies – especially multi-cultural, multi-faith, societies – or in our globalised world.”