Can the Winter Olympics Help Thaw Global Relations?

Olympics finalJames Tworow/Flickr

The Olympics are sometimes hailed as one of the few “apolitical” events that bring the nations of the world together. But this year, with a Russian doping scandal and tensions on the Korean peninsula, the 2018 Winter Games have become one of the most thrilling theaters of international politics.

And through it all, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has served as a skillful international diplomat, establishing terms that will not only ensure a fair and stable Olympics, but may also improve global relations beyond the stadium walls.

Following allegations of doping, the IOC banned Russia from this year’s Winter Games. That means only athletes who pass the vetting process are permitted to perform and only as “Olympic athletes from Russia” instead of part of the Russian team. These “denationalized” individuals will compete under the Olympic flag and wear neutral costumes.

While this may sound like a punishment designed to ostracize Russia from the global event, the ban actually represents a fair—and even sympathetic—response. By referring to the participants as “athletes from Russia,” the IOC has permitted the athletes to maintain a semblance of their national identity. Moreover, the IOC is showing that it makes a distinction between the Russian government’s alleged actions and the rights and behaviors of vetted Russian athletes. In other words, it favors an inclusive compromise over an indiscrimate ban.

Even Putin seems to agree. Though he called the decision “staged and politically motivated,” he confirmed the attendance of 169 approved athletes instead of boycotting the Games. By ultimately deferring to the IOC’s decision, the Russian president has demonstrated his country’s willingness to accept the decision and remain part of a global community.

Through some critics have described the ban as an example of anti-Russian discrimination, it’s clear it could have been much worse. Had the IOC taken a hardline or discriminatory stance, it might have prevented all athletes of Russian nationality from competing at all. This is what some critics—including former Olympians—have been calling for.

The Russian doping controversy isn’t the only diplomatic hurdle at the Olympics this year. The event is taking place in PyeongChang, South Korea, a region only 60 miles from the country’s heavily policed border with North Korea, which is sending 22 athletes of its own. And though tensions have been high between North and South Korea over the past year, the IOC has managed to promote a sense of peace and unity.

Following North Korea’s unexpected calls for Korean unity at the Games, the IOC used its bureaucratic clout to help turn these sentiments into Olympic policy. Acting as an international peace broker, the IOC oversaw a meeting between the states to establish terms for participation ahead of the Games. Since these meetings were prompted by North Korea’s request for reconciliation—whether genuine or not—the IOC can’t be accused of overstepping the mark or interfering in bilateral relations; they were simply (and skillfully) facilitating a request for dialogue.

As a result of these meetings, the IOC established the terms for trans-Korean participation by concluding that both nations will march under a unification flag during the opening ceremony. Though the teams will compete separately on some of the more individual sports like skiing and figure skating, North and South Korean athletes will compete together on a united “Korea” women’s ice hockey team. Through the power of unifying symbols, the IOC has helped de-escalate the hyper-nationalistic rivalry that has plagued relations between the Koreas for decades.

Despite some suspicion surrounding North Korea’s entry to the Games, the inclusion of its athletes irrespective of the government’s pariah status is an example of the democratic and inclusive nature of the Olympics. What the IOC is facilitating is a policy of engagement for both Koreas and for the North Korean public in particular. For the North Koreans watching the games this year, the inclusion of their nation’s athletes may help make them feel more integrated into the international community.

The IOC’s pragmatism may hold valuable lessons for other institutions beyond the sports world. The U.N., for example, can take notes on the IOC’s careful navigation of the Russian ban to more effectively deal with governments that breach international law. Just as the IOC pursued a targeted approach by penalizing the Russian state but not their vetted individual athletes, the U.N. could similarly work to punish offending governments without alienating or harming their citizens.

With the IOC accused of discrimination in Russia and fears that a “united Korea” may overshadow the events at PyeongChang, the IOC’s efforts at diplomacy are far from perfect. But as an organization founded on the premise of “building a better world through sport,” the IOC seems to be making strides.














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