By David Tweed
The Winter Olympics starting this week in South Korea are the latest in a string of sporting events that have helped shape global politics.
Whether it be an emerging power challenging a dominant one (1908), a dictator looking for a propaganda coup (1936) or a terrorist group looking to shock the world (1972), global sporting events are often more about what goes on away from the playing field.
This year, South Korean President Moon Jae-in invited North Korea on the hope that a detente would help avert a devastating war over its nuclear program. While it’s unclear if the Games will lead to a lasting peace, they’ve already been successful for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: He’s grabbed more headlines than any of the athletes.
“To use sport as a foreign policy tool only works if it is deeply embedded in a wider foreign policy or strategy,” said Udo Merkel, a lecturer at the University of Brighton in the U.K. who writes about sports diplomacy. “If not embedded, symbolic gestures, turning up at international events, all these kinds of things are utterly meaningless.”
Here are some of the sporting events that had the greatest impact on world affairs over the past century or so:
1908 London Olympics
The Games were supposed to ease tensions as the upstart U.S. challenged Britain’s established global dominance. But the U.K. neglected to display the American flag at the opening ceremony, and the U.S. team refused to dip the Stars and Stripes in front of the king. On the field, the Americans accused the British tug-of-war team of donning heavy boots to gain an advantage, according to Olympic historian David Clay Large. Revelers later dragged a papier-mâché effigy of a British lion through the streets of New York.
1936 Berlin Olympics
These Games are widely viewed as an embarrassing moment for Adolf Hitler after black American athlete Jesse Owens won a slew of medals. But in reality, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Nazis turned the failure of a movement to boycott the event into a public relations victory in which they bedazzled “many foreign spectators and journalists with an image of a peaceful, tolerant Germany.”
1971 Ping Pong Diplomacy
After months of secret talks between the U.S. and China on establishing diplomatic relations, Mao Zedong invited a group of American table tennis players to play in Beijing. While then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had his doubts, the event helped pave the way for a visit by President Richard Nixon to the Chinese capital and the eventual normalization of ties eight years later.
1972 Munich Olympics
Olympic organizers hoped the Games would promote reconciliation in a divided Germany. Instead, East German athletes cheered only their own team, and rejected Bavarian beer in favor of brews brought from home. It took 17 more years for the Berlin Wall to fall. The Games were marred by the murder of 11 Israelis and a policeman by terrorists sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
1988 Seoul Olympics
North Korea boycotted the event after its offer to co-host was rejected, in part because its agents were blamed for killing 115 people when a bomb took down a South Korean airliner a year earlier. The Games got off to an awful start when a group of doves were roasted alive as the Olympic cauldron was lit, but were deemed an overall success due to one of the highest participation rates ever. Even so, according to historian Sergey Radchenko, the Games contributed to long-term tensions on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang was humiliated into taking a stand of militant defiance.