Sports, Politics, and Superpowers

Those over the age of fifty and who regularly follow the news may find current events curiously similar to those that occurred forty-one years ago: it’s the start of a new decade, a superpower is tangled in Afghanistan, and there are rumblings of boycotting the Olympic Games. 

In 1980, the United States joined Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov’s appeal to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. While there are different types of Olympic boycotts, it typically means that a country does not send athletes to the games. While initially proposed as a protest against Soviet violations of human rights in Afghanistan, the spat quickly evolved into a political showdown. The United States managed to coerce both allied and non-allied nations alike into boycotting the Games. By the time the Games began, 65 countries had joined the boycott, including all NATO member states as well as several countries firmly opposed to the US, such as Iran, which also condemned the Soviet invasion and was part of a separate effort by Islamic states to boycott the games. 

The boycott was not only a diplomatic confrontation; civil society was actively involved as well. Renowned boxer Muhammad Ali travelled to Tanzania, Kenya, Senegal, and Nigeria to convince their respective leaders to participate in the boycott. The trip was partially successful as Kenya would eventually join the US in the boycott. 

The Soviet Union and its allies would, in turn, boycott the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The USSR cited security concerns, anti-Soviet sentiments, and the commercialization of the Games as its reasoning behind the boycott. However, many observers interpreted the decision to be a retaliation against the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow games.  

Despite the boycotts, the core objective of the Olympic Games is to contribute to a better world through sports. Thomas Bach, the current President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) states that Olympians “show the whole world that it is possible to compete with each other while living peacefully together.” Indeed, the Olympic Games have the power to unify the world; however, it does not take much for the arenas of politics and sports to merge. Clearly, the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics was no exception. 

Medal Counts and Nationalism 

In some ways, the number of Olympic medals a country’s athletes win generally reflect its power and prosperity. A country’s ability to produce athletes that can compete at an internationally-elite level requires a combination of many factors, including population size, economic prosperity, and a desire to spend resources on sports. 

Naturally, population size determines the number of people who could potentially become Olympic athletes. Economic prosperity and political stability allow a country to develop its population’s talent pool with money and material resources. Lastly, long-term investment in athletic resources is required to mobilize the aforementioned factors. Thus, countries often use the Olympics as a display of national pride to showcase their power, wealth, and political stability. It is no surprise that the Olympic medal count is consistently dominated by major powers like the US and China, as well as smaller, but rich countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden, and Australia. 

Consequently, medal counts often become politicized. For example, since the US was projected to win the most medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, American news outlets ranked countries according to the number of total gold, silver, and bronze medals won. However, the IOC  standard prioritizes gold medal rankings instead of overall medal counts. The American media’s ranking system ensured that the US would appear to rank first rather than second, when in fact it trailed China in gold medal counts until the last day of the Games. 

Although some argue that this is a reasonable way to count medals, it was criticized for intentionally deviating from the IOC standard to present an image of American superiority. As well, this strategy was also used to cover up a disappointing medal haul by Team USA, which was projected to win 16 more medals than it actually did in Tokyo. 

Yet, Americans are not the only ones guilty of injecting nationalism into the Olympics. There were many upsets over the course of the Tokyo Games, and many smaller Olympic delegates from countries such as the Philippines and San Marino shined over the two-week period. Perhaps the most stunning of upsets occurred at the expense of Team China. Japanese duo Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito defeated Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen for the mixed doubles gold in table tennis, while Taiwan’s Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin bested China’s Liu Yuchen and Li Junhui in the men’s badminton doubles. 

These losses in events traditionally dominated by Chinese athletes did not sit well with the nationalist elements of Chinese media. Comments that the Japanese referees were biased against the Chinese team went viral on Chinese social media platforms. In fact, after it became clear that the US would top the gold medal count, edited medal counts appeared on Chinese social media showing a “Greater China” team topping the medal count with 41 gold medals, with the Taiwanese and Hong Kong delegation’s medals included. 

A Return to Boycotts?

Although social media activity is not the most reliable indicator of public sentiment, nor does it represent official positions of governments or countries, the political rhetoric surrounding the Olympic Games has been escalating recently. Opposition to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics over China’s human rights record in Xinjiang has been gaining traction among the American political establishment. In May 2021, US Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, called for a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Games, a motion echoed by several notable members of the US government, including Senator Mitt Romney. Further, a survey conducted in April 2021 showed that over 50 percent of Canadians believed that Canada should not send athletes to China for the Games. 

Although a repeat of the 1980 and 1984 Cold War boycotts seems improbable, without constructive diplomacy, the contentious politics surrounding the Olympic Games will likely continue to rise. The 2022 Beijing Games may be on track to become the most politically charged Olympics since the fall of the Soviet Union.