The Politicization of Sports

“To say that politics is not a part of sports is not being realistic. When I run, I am more than a runner. I am a diplomat, an ambassador for my country.” As Filbert Bayi–a former middle-distance runner–said, sports sometimes go beyond the meaning of simple physical activities. 

From time immemorial, sports always provided spectators with hope, bliss and enthusiasm. It also contributed to the elevation of the nation’s status in the international arena. This process of exploitation is called politicisation. The politicization of sports commonly occurred in two forms: the top to bottom form and the bottom-up form. In the case of the top to bottom form, the government attempts to achieve specific aims through sports events, while people utilize sports events as places for publicizing their thoughts in a bottom-up form. 

One of the most successful cases of politicisation of sports was the Seoul Olympics in 1988 since it marked the turning point in the modern history of South Korea. Prior to the hosting of the Olympics, South Korea had undergone a wide variety of turmoils: colonization, Korean War, and political instability, to list but a few.  As a result, despite the rapid significant economic growth in the 1970s and 80s, South Korea still was regarded as one of the poorest countries in the world and there were only a few who knew the existence of the nation before the Olympics. In order to improve the nation’s status in the international arena, the Chun administration decided to host the Olympics with the hope that the world would acknowledge the rapid economic growth of South Korea, commonly known as “the Miracle on Han River.” 

Fortunately, the Olympics completely changed the preconceptions regarding South Korea since it promoted patriotism and significantly contributed to forging international communication while also improving Seoul’s infrastructure and cultural landscape. Furthermore, according to the International Olympics Committee, international export sales of South Korea to communist countries were 3.65 million USD, which had increased by 80 percent. This indicates that the Chun administration successfully showed the world that South Korea completely recovered from the tragic scars of the Korean War and was ready to leap up to the ranks of the advanced nation. This marked the summit of a South Korean economic golden age in the 1980s before the IMF crisis in 1997. Therefore, the Seoul Olympics was successfully politicized with the purpose of elevating the nation’s status in the international arena.

On the other hand, the Seoul Olympics was politicised as a political trickery to retain power by the Chun Administration. Although South Korea had undergone a significant economic takeoff since the tragic Korean War, the country was still experiencing political instability. The nation was under the jackboot of a dictatorship of the Park Chung-hee, the Chun administrations which led to the public’s infuriation, discontent, and dissatisfaction toward the government in the late 1980s. As a consequence, the Chun administration attempted to shift the focus of the public from politics to entertainment by implementing a new cultural policy, which is commonly known as the 3S policy: sports, sex, and screen. “Memories of the Gwangju massacre were more than a thorn in the side of Chun Doo-hwan, they were something that needed to be erased,” Hankyoreh–one of the renowned Korean newspaper agencies–said about the Gwangju Massacre in 1980. This implies that the Chun administration hosted the Olympics in 1988 to eradicate all public memories of the political oppression of the dictatorial government and this includes the appalling Gwangju massacre in 1980. 

Furthermore, as the quote “the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all” by John F. Kennedy stresses, the Chun administration attempted to cover the eyes and ears of the public by providing sensational content called sports. In this way, they believed civilians would be unaware and apathetic to all the inhumane activities committed by the government. Moreover, they perceived that the apolitical civilians would allow them to easily manipulate and control the citizens, which would eventually result in the maintenance of authority. In a nutshell, the Seoul Olympics of 1988 provided the Chun administration an opportunity to maintain its power. Thus, the aims of the Chun administration were successfully achieved through the politicisation of sports since it allowed the maintenance of dictatorship.

Last but not least, the two contemporary superpowers: the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China, politicized the sport of ping pong in the top-to-bottom form during the Cold War. Although America and China believed having a diplomatic relationship with each other would burgeon their economies, the two countries could not have an official relationship due to their difference in political ideologies. The two countries, however, utilized ping-pong as a pretext for the establishment of diplomatic ties between two countries. In April 1971, the U.S. Table Tennis Team visited China to have a friendly match with the Chinese Table Tennis Team, and this historical friendly match implied a soon establishment of a diplomatic relationship between the two countries.  

Both China and the United States perceived having a diplomatic relationship with each other as a great opportunity for the sake of their further economic development. The match was one of the most significant scenes in the modern history of the world. It was the first time Americans officially visited mainland China and also led to President Nixon, the leader of the world’s prime capitalist state, visiting China, which is one of the strongest communist countries, seven months later. Furthermore, regarding his trip to China, Nixon commented, “it’s the week that changed the world.” This clearly showed that through the politicisation of the ping pong match, the US, which is the leader of the free world, successfully demonstrated to the global society that they are now willing to cooperate with China, which is one of their ultimate enemies. Moreover, the match demonstrated the significance of soft power as sports enabled the two countries to compete without any use of hard power. After preluding their cooperation through ping-pong matches, the two countries opened their markets and experienced significant economic takeoff. China, which used to be one of the poorest countries in East Asia, now found herself as a member of G2, with the US being the superior. Therefore, the politicization of ping-pong in 1971 played a crucial role in bringing two nations, the US and China, from sharing completely opposing political ideologies to one.

Throughout the history of humanities, sports events were politicized by various political actors and gave a significant impact on global politics. The examples of the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and ping-pong diplomacy between the U.S. and China showed the world how the politicization of sports can be effective in achieving certain political purposes. The Seoul Olympics was not only utilised as propaganda by the Korean government for the promotion of the nation but was also exploited as political trickery to retain its power. Moreover, table tennis was politicised in order to lay the groundwork for a diplomatic relationship between the United States and China which regarded each other as their greatest enemies. Although more than half a century has passed since those cases, the politicisation of sports is still taking place in contemporary society in various sports tournaments. Recently, on 3rd March 2022, Manchester City showed their support of Ukraine, which is currently having a war against Russia by giving Ukrainian player, Oleksandr Zinchenko, a captain armband. Therefore, sports and politics are inseparable; we must be always alerted that sports can be politicized at any time.

Choisung (James) Park

Publicity Officer of Political Studies and Activism Society


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