The Politicization of the Olympics


Honestly, I have never understood the appeal, much less the fanaticism, of professional athletics. To quote Ian Malcolm from the Jurassic Park (the novel), grown men swatting balls is not serious as a career, nor particularly entertaining. I certainly understand that there is something admirable in watching highly trained people perform their expertise, but MDs, PhDs, and soldiers are all highly trained too. At least what they do with all those long years of training is socially meaningful (health care, education, national defense). Beyond entertainment, it is not clear if there is any benign social purpose professional athletics serves. Note further, that its malign social impacts are well-known: corruption of US collegiate education, dead-end hopes with squandered education for millions of poor kids dreaming to be Michael Jordan, a huge diversion of social attention away from meaningful social questions to the ‘sports page,’ families and teen health ignored so athletes can spend 6 hours a day in the gym. I admire the old British tradition of the ranking amateur with a proportional view of athletics as part of physical health. How all this stuff can be a career genuinely baffles me.

As for the viewer, I think we watch not just for the entertainment of competition, but also for darker reasons. First, there is definitely freak-show curiosity. There is something deeply creepy about Barry Bond’s biceps being larger than your thighs, or those misshapen teen athletes who sacrifice their menstrual cycle to become Olympic gymnasts. That is why we respond so lightly to doping and steroids; we kinda want to see what these aliens will look like. Part of us is curious to see the East German women’s swim team with hairy chests or Mark MacGuire’s robo-body perform, even though we all know he cheated. I also think we find a dark pleasure in watching people with unique abilities purchased a terrible cost. Watching skiers fly into moguls at 100 mph or boxers get the hell beat out of them is part of the bloodsport of it all. You didn’t turn away when those lugers crashed, did you?

Nor is there any doubt that professional athletics, especially across borders, gets deeply politicized and nationalized. Today on the radio I talked about how South Korea has used the Olympics as a wedge against North Korea for decades. There is a long tradition of politicizing the Olympics that goes back at least to Hitler’s perversion of the games in 1936 into a demonstration of Aryan physico-racial superiority.





February 22, 2010



Hello everyone and welcome to …..

Right now we have our weekly foreign affairs expert for some commentary on Korea and Northeast Asia. Dr. Robert Kelly teaches in the Political Science and Diplomacy Department at Pusan National University. He’s been living in Korea about 18 months now, and his area of expertise is the international relations of East Asia. If you wish to contact him, please see his website at

Professor Kelly comes to us each Monday to talk about big issues in Korean foreign affairs. And this week we are going to discuss the two Koreas at the Olympics. Hi, Dr. Kelly.


Hi, Petra. Thanks for having me



Thanks for being with us again today.



It’s my pleasure.


This seems like a lighter topic than usual. Why are the Olympics important for the inter-Korean relationship?


It is a lighter topic. We can’t always discuss trade or border conflicts in the Yellow Sea. But it is also true that countries take their international tensions into world sports. You can learn a surprising amount about the workings of the global economy or nation-state competition by watching the Olympics.


How is that? Aren’t they just athletes?


Well, yes and no. The Olympics is supposed to be apolitical, but they are very clearly not. The International Olympic Committee has been riddled with corruption for years. Countries are regularly caught trying to bribe the committee members to vote for their cities. Host countries routinely use the Olympics to display their modernity, prestige, economic growth, etc., to a global audience. Or countries that are competing with each other in more serious global arenas, like security or ideology, frequently seek to win medals at Olympics as a marker of national greatness or triumph in the larger international contest. In fact, athletes frequently allow themselves to be used in this manner. Korean athletes, for example, routinely carry the Taeguki in their victory laps. This is unnecessary, of course, and violates the Olympic spirit, but it is a hypocrisy that most countries demand from their athletes. In the Korean case, carrying the Taegukgi is a way to prove to the world that South Korea, not North Korea, is the real Korea.


I never thought of that Olympics as so politicized…


Well sure. Let me just give you a few examples. In 1936, the Nazis used the Berlin Olympics to show the world that Germany had recovered from the devastation of World War I, that fascism was the wave of the future, that Germany was racially clean and hence physical superior. It was consequently a huge embarrassment when an American black, Jesse Owens, defeated German athletes. In 1980, before professional athletes were allowed in the Olympics, the US hockey team, composed of mostly amateurs from college teams, played the highly professionalized Soviet team and won. Americans took this as a huge underdog victory in the Cold War, and there is even a movie about it. More recently, Greece used the 2004 Olympics to prove that it was a modern European country that rightfully belonged in the European Union and the euro currency zone. Today we know how wrong that is, as Greek debt is now threatening to destroy the euro. In 2008, China used the Olympics to prove that it was rich, modern, intimidating, and a great power. And all Koreans, of course, will recall how South Korea used the ’88 Olympics as a world-wide coming out party or fashion show for the Korean economic miracle. Indeed, so highly politicized were the Seoul Olympics that North Korea engaged in terrorism to stop them. Kim Il Sung knew, correctly, that a successful Olympics in South Korea would be a significant defeat for North Korea in the inter-Korean competition.


Yes, of course. And the 88 Olympics did presage the North Korea’s very difficult problems of the 1990s. It really did mark the beginning of South Korea’s victory in that competition. So what about today?


Well the Olympics today are relevant for South Korea as a continuing global marker of North Korea’s defeat and humiliation. The North Korean team is small, poorly-trained, and their performance has been weak. North and South Korean athletes did compete against each other in a few events, with the Northern athletes easily trumped. With no medals, no one in the global viewing audience will see the North Korean flag raised, nor hear the North Korean national hymn. By contrast, South Korea is wealthy and populous enough to field a major team. Yuna Kim of course will get lots of publicity, and other South Korean athletes will win here and there. So the monolithic image of Koreans in this global forum will be of South Koreans


It sounds tough for the North.


Yes it is. Very clearly. Which is probably why the North declared last week yet another round of military exercise in the Yellow Sea, and yet more zones of military exclusion that will provoke the South Korean navy. Rocket tests are troublesome way to remind South Koreans and the world that Yuna Kim is not really that important.


And South Korea has been trying to get another Olympics too, hasn’t it?


Yes. South Korea has come pretty close in the last few years to winning another Olympics. And it seems likely that it will get one again reasonably soon. This would be yet another humiliation for the North. Two Olympics in a row in the South, and none in the North. You can imagine the torrent of bellicose Northern rhetoric that another Southern Olympics would bring.


This is somewhat cynical view of the Olympics as a tool of countries to show off and compete with each other. What happened to the idea of global sport something all people can enjoy, regardless of the nationality or citizenship?


Well, there is some of that. When the classical Greek city-states started the Olympics, they really did see them this way. But today, they really aren’t. The Olympics have become about much more than the sports – particularly money and nationalism. I would blame a few things. First, the Cold War. The East-West competition for decades all but insured that just about every Olympics would be highly politicized. The importance of Yuna Kim today as a triumphant South Korean athlete, fits exactly that Cold War context. Second, I blame television. TV has turned the Olympics into a global bonanza for countries – and companies – to strut their stuff. In the same way that TV and money have corrupted American college athletics, they have also corrupted the Olympics. Consider all the advertising revenue Yuna Kim will earn from her Olympic performance. She is clearly doing this more than just love of skating. Finally, I blame the host countries. Hosts as diverse as the Soviet Union, Greece, the Nazis, the Chinese communists, or South Korea have all sought the Olympics for primarily political purposes, and used the Olympics as such. Just recall how intimidating and subtly threatening the Beijing Olympics seemed; the whole vibe of Beijing 2008 was China rising. I even went to a political science conference last year on this topic! Even the mild-mannered Canadians used the opening Vancouver ceremonies as a celebration of Canadian nationalism, not a global sport community.


So the Olympics are a nationalist backlash against globalization? It’s a global sporting event in which the athletes wear their national colors?


I think so. Certainly, Koreans don’t treat the Olympics as just a global sporting event. My impression from Korea’s coverage of the Olympics is that it is highly nationalized and politicized.


Ok. How depressing. Thank you professor for coming once again. See you next week.

7 thoughts on “The Politicization of the Olympics

  1. I don’t know about this. As an NFL fan, my (new) awareness of the long-term consequences of head injury (including sub-concussive) has taken a lot of the fun out of watching. It’s the opposite of what you describe. I don’t know if I’m unusual that way, but my suspicion is that most fans have no idea what the harmful consequences of some sports are.

    I can’t rationalize why I love to see the Steelers play and win. It’s primitive. But I do.

    You’re also overlooking all the strategy and personalities involved – a very substantial portion of the game. For every minute of active NFL play, there are untold hours of discussion and analysis of strategy.

  2. Heh…can you imagine what North Korea hosting the Games would be like? It might possibly be sufficient to permanently destroy both the NK regime and the Olympics…something to think about actually.

    • Hah! What an image. That made me laugh out loud.

      But actually, you’re right. This counterfactual would be a great paper: ‘How dysfunctional regimes wreck global cooperation.’

      Just try to imagine an Olympics in a country where people averege 1200 calories a day…

  3. Pingback: Kim Yu-Nationalism, Or How Middle Powers Assert Themselves in Global Politics « Asian Security & US Politics Blog

  4. Pingback: The Politicization of the Olympics economic university

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