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Diplomacy In Disguise: The Politics Of Sport

  • Egypt's Mohamed Salah looks dejected during Saudi Arabia vs Egypt in the Volgograd Arena, Russia, on June 25, 2018.

    Egypt's Mohamed Salah looks dejected during Saudi Arabia vs Egypt in the Volgograd Arena, Russia, on June 25, 2018. | Photo: Reuters

Published 29 June 2018

International sporting events, like the World Cup, offer global platforms for rival countries to unite under unprecedented conditions that can improve fraught relations and expose historical divisions.  

The first Olympic Games originated in ancient Greece in 776 BC, uniting male athletes from present-day Iberia (Spain) to the west and the Black Sea region (Turkey) to the east. The games were principally to honor religious beliefs and Zeus, the father of ancient Greek Gods. Today's Olympic Games unite men and women from all corners of the globe, all faiths and all walks of life. World sporting events are seen as great equalizers and a showing of national values, pride and legacies. Specific countries and regions cultivate national pastimes such as soccer, cricket, weightlifting and martial arts, while world powers such as the United States, China and Russia seek imperial dominance and hegemony over the sports arena. International sporting events, like the Olympic Games and World Cup, offer global platforms for rival countries to unite under unprecedented conditions that can improve fraught relations, expose historical divisions, or foresee future conflicts.  

World Cup 2018 Special Report

It is worth recalling the Berlin Olympics of 1936, held in Nazi Germany under the auspices of Adolf Hitler, which served as a key turning point for the battered country to rebuild its image following World War I on its rise to global dominance. The games were also a breeding ground for international spies to collect critical intelligence leading up to the next world war. It was at these Olympic Games that the Fuhrer's theories of Aryan racial supremacy and the lengths the country would go to further this aim were laid bare. German newspapers insisted in the strongest terms that Blacks and Jews be banned from the games. Although German athletes won the most medals that year, Black American sprinter Jesse Owens dominated in track and field. Interestingly, the Americans pulled their Jewish athletes from the games so as not to embarrass host Germany. Three years later, in 1939, events in Nazi Germany led to the declaration of World War II.

With the balance of global power shifting in 2018, the world has witnessed sports diplomacy take center stage with the historic opening of talks between North Korea and South Korea.  North Korea's increasingly bellicose nuclear launches were endangering the world, creating great uncertainty about the safety and security of the South Korea games. Ultimately, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's desire to be part of the games was greater than his threat to destroy them. Through intense diplomatic talks with China and South Korea, the historic détente with its neighbor led to North Korea sending 22 athletes to compete in five sports, including fielding a joint women's hockey team as a unified Korea.

Since the February Olympic Games, talks between the United States and North Korea have intensified and led to the historic Singapore Summit, which for the first time in history united a sitting U.S. president with his North Korean counterpart. 

Just like in ancient times, the Olympic Games were a forum for political discussions and also the cause of political strife. While the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) has a policy of banning politics at the World Cup, there have been formal complaints of politics interfering with the Serbia-Switzerland game, and intrigue about the curious role that Chechnya has played in this year's contest. The divisions remaining from former Yugoslovia were evident in the recent World Cup game between Serbia and Switzerland. Two of Switzerland's leading players of Albanian descent – linked to Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008 – were fined about US$10,000 each by FIFA for making hand-gestures of the two-headed Albanian eagle during the game. The Serbian team was also fined about US$54,000 for its fans' discriminatory banners, messages and conduct during the game. The impassioned Balkans history played out during the Russian World Cup, and this incident was not the only brush with politics at the 2018 event.  

Let's look closer at the linkages between Chechnya and Egypt, which suggest Russia's bridge-building between Muslim elements of their own and the Islamic world. Egypt's national soccer team, led by star Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah, stayed in the Soviet Republic of Chechnya during their run at the World Cup. Chechnya's leader Ramzan Kadyrov enjoyed several public photos with Salah, and even granted him an honorary citizen of Chechnya. This politicization of sports is taking its toll, with Egyptian football quickly silencing rumors that Salah was bothered by the spectacle and will retire following this event. Should these claims of Salah's retirement prove true, and linked to this crass political stunt, there will be deep resentment on the Arab Street, which could negatively affect any Middle East strategy Russia had been laying the groundwork for vis-a-vis Chechnya. 

For Ancient Greeks, sporting events offered the opportunity to discuss politics while reveling in athletic competition. While modern-day Olympic Games, World Cups and other international sports officially are independent of politics, strong historical currents run through each and every one of these venues, offering the opportunity for redemption, revenge and revision. 

Geovanny Vicente Romero is the founder of the Center of Public Policy, Leadership and Development in the Dominican Republic (CPDL-RD). He is a political analyst, international consultant and lecturer based in Washington, D.C.  Follow him at @GeovannyVicentR. 

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