The joint North-South Korean ice hockey team planned for next month’s Winter Olympics is a small win, whatever their fortunes on the rink
Will a flag and half a dozen ice hockey sticks solve the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula? Of course not. If, as planned, a joint North-South women’s team strides forth under a pro-unification flag at next month’s Winter Olympics in the South, it will be a very small step forwards. But that is one of the paradoxes on which all sports diplomacy rests – it matters because it does not matter. The idea of using sports to improve fraught relations dates back at least to the Olympic Truce reached in Ancient Greece, supposedly on the advice of the Oracle at Delphi. The monarchs of Elis, Pisa and Sparta agreed that the hosts, athletes and accompanying parties would be able to participate in the games without any risk. In the modern age, ping-pong diplomacy helped thaw cold war tensions between the US and China. Sport is powerful as a symbol of national identity and vigour that engages the public, often passionately. Yet set beside bigger conflicts it is comically irrelevant – and therefore much safer. A nation may feel embarrassed at a loss, but no one dies.
A second paradox is that sports are about both competition and cooperation. George Orwell, writing a few years after the 1936 Berlin Olympics, took an exceptionally bleak view of international contests. Serious sport was “bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting,” he concluded.
Link : The Guardian view on sporting diplomacy: scoring not shooting | Editorial