In 776 BCE, the Ancient Greeks founded their own Olympic Games in celebration of sport and the male physique, hosting the festival in arenas of peace rather than politics. For such an event to have existed despite the constant warmongering among the Hellenic city-states was a monumental achievement. Like the modern Olympics of these times, the Ancient Greek Olympic Games were held every four years and this tradition was successfully carried out for twelve centuries.
Nevertheless, despite the truce implemented among city-states during the games to ensure safe passage for athletes and spectators, the Ancient Greeks were never able to fully depoliticise the sporting event. Sport has never been completely depoliticised since. While “sport” may be the last rubric to be projected on the newsreel, its entanglement in politics ensures that it has consistently remained at the forefront of international and domestic politics. The announcement of Koreans from both ends of the peninsula marching under the same banner at the upcoming Winter Olympics produces a key reminder of this reality. The concept of the political “sphere” is an archaic one. To not acknowledge the ways in which hard politics seeps into every component of the quotidian is a blissfully ignorant state of being which few can afford.
Racial politics has consistently highlighted how African-Americans cannot afford an apathetic response to politics as white Americans have the luxury to do. In September 2017, American President Donald Trump’s condemnation of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem elevated the protests to an international level. A select number of NFL players, the majority of which are African American, had begun kneeling during the national anthem played before games during 2016 to show silent solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement. As NFL player Colin Kaepernick explained, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” The universal appeal of sport gives it an enormous and diverse outreach, rendering it is a natural platform for political statements. Furthermore, politics and professionalism are inherently entwined, as the surge of the #metoo movement in Hollywood has brutally demonstrated. Kaepernick understood this well when he declared that, “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Sport can never hope to be depoliticised while it remains defined by socio-economic boundaries. Cool Runnings, the beloved film about a Jamaican bobsled team that makes its way to the Winter Olympics, inadvertently portrays the inequity present within certain sports. For example, many winter sports are unachievable except for the very wealthy, especially in warmer climates like in Australia which is not accommodating for accessible and affordable training. Other sports are costly regardless of location, such as fencing and equestrian which are equipment-heavy, requiring expensive upkeep, and the costs cannot be divided among a team. Hence at both the domestic and international level, communal and street-friendly sports such as soccer and football have a larger intersection of representation. Like in a law court where ideally judges and jury should have no bias, players and spectators in sport cannot realistically avoid the political implications of the world they live in.
The North-South Korea agreement to improve bilateral relations is an intentional intrusion by politics into sport whereas normally, it is the Olympics itself which brings light to political issues. In 2008, China hosted the summer Olympics and found itself under the harsh glare of the international spotlight. China was condemned for a variety of human rights abuses: the forced displacement of people from their homes to make way for the Bird’s Nest, the denial of all applications for protest, and the restriction of both domestic and international journalists from reporting on continued crackdowns in Xinjiang and Tibet. When Brazil had its turn in 2016, it enforced similar evictions of residents in its favelas to make away for the Olympic venue and dealt with anti-government protests throughout the competition.
Although war is left at the frontlines, the Olympic Games are never void of political tensions.
Given the all-permeating nature of politics, it is not necessarily a drawback that the Olympics incorporates the pressing issues of international politics. The Games are unique because they provide a rare forum for achieving diplomatic measures that would not normally be feasible. They also provide journalists and human rights defenders a pretext for discussing topics that are not as glamorous as the Opening Ceremony or the fine-tuned athletes. At the domestic level, sport is an extension of quotidian politics and its entanglement is therefore inevitable. If political deals can be struck on Trump golf courses, there is no reason why sport and politics should play out in separate arenas.