The Olympics is not just about sportsmanship

It is impossible to keep politics out of sports, particularly at an event whose very foundation rests on national identity.

By Hamsini Hariharan (@HamsiniH)

Bomb scares, doping allegations, unready rooms, sexual harassment and the clinking of gold medals have turned all eyes to Rio. The 2016 Olympics is sure to be exciting but the mega event is also important because of its geopolitical undercurrents. Indeed, the Olympic Torch may represent ‘peace, unity and friendship’ but the Games have always been about more than sportsmanship. The objective is to carry out sports diplomacy, however the result is often dictated by power politics. This year, for instance, the participation of the first ever team of displaced athletes named ‘Team Refugees’ brings light to the instability of political regimes around the world and the impact it has on civilians. Not only does this indicate an erosion of nationalism but also the fragile state of peace of the post Cold War world.

The Olympics display elements of nation branding embedded in the practices and traditions. It is an opportunity for countries to display their soft power as well as attract investment and tourism. A simultaneous narrative is often one of urban development (or lack of) as countries strive to boost infrastructure and provide ‘worldclass facilities’. Ten years ago, Brazil was touted as one the strongest economies in the world and its hosting the Olympics was to indicate its standing among middle powers. The choice of Brazil as a host city somehow became representative of the North-South debate as, it is the first South American host and the sole in the southern hemisphere.

However, the Rio Olympics seem to have had the opposite impression. The awaited impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the huge corruption scandal and the terrible recession instead showcase the simmering political discord within the country.  The construction of Olympic specific infrastructure is also problematic because it highlights issues of national importance. Generally, there is a trend of the hosts using the mega event to ramp up the infrastructure in cities. On the other hand, this has also exposed the various pitfalls within the cities themselves. Questions about the preparedness of Rio, has also brought the spotlight to the various problems in Brazil, from the amount of air pollution and the political instability, to high unemployment rates, the crime rates in the city to the pandemic Zika virus.

The criticism levied against Rio is not unique; the Olympics is beset by criticism and political signaling. A set of protestors outside the mega-event has become a regular feature. The 2012 Winter Olympics at Sochi saw massive demonstrations by LGBT activists as well as Georgian protestors. The suppression of Tibetans gained widespread coverage during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Poverty whether it is in Rio, Athens, Beijing or London is a common narrative for host countries. This year, it has gained even more prominence with the popularity of favela tours that are supposed to boost cultural understanding and tourism revenues but have been criticised as voyeuristic slum tourism.

Through political history, the Olympics were reflective of the power politics of the time and were characterised by patterns of political gesturing. The Games were cancelled thrice because of the two World Wars. During the Cold War, antagonism between the two bipolar states was remarkable in the Olympic Games as the raking of medals was a metaphor for the prowess of a superpower. The Olympics have often been sites for geopolitics to be played out as countries boycotted the games to display political displeasure. Of course, the most remarkable event in the history of the Olympics were the 1972 Munich Olympic Games in which 11 Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian extremists.

The messy history of the Olympic Games has translated into a devoted fan following for various sports, with technology allowing for live broadcast and constant reminders. It is an important nation building activity, turning a politically indifferent aam aadmi into a patriotic tally keeper. It is impossible to keep politics out of sports, particularly at an event whose very foundation rests on national identity. What ensues however, is a extravagant display of games and geopolitics, which sometimes intertwine.

Hamsini Hariharan is a Research Scholar with the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @HamsiniH

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