January 14, 2009: Dr. Victor Cha

(Click to Enlarge) Victor Cha discusses the connections between sport and politics.

Sport and Politics in Asia

(Washington D.C.) January 14– Though the playing fields of sporting events seem far from the conference rooms of international politics, sport and politics have long been intertwined. In an international community defined by periods of war, peace, and stalemate, sport can facilitate diplomatic breakthroughs and breakdowns, foster change and development, and become a prism through which nations refract their identities. In an East-West Center in Washington Asia Pacific Security Seminar, Dr. Victor Cha of Georgetown University discussed his newest book entitled Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia (Columbia University Press, 2008), in which he detailed the convergence of sport and politics and discussed the political implications of the recent Olympic Games in Beijing.


Sport has long been connected with politics in the history of many civilizations. The Greeks designated the early Olympic Games as a time of truce when opposing armies lay down their arms and warring enemies could travel unmolested. Sport arenas have become battlefields upon which political conflicts are waged, and have long been a target of terrorists because they are widely broadcast and feature athletes wearing the colors of their country. And never has sport been more politicized than during the Cold War, when the USSR and other communist states promoted the dominance of their athletes as a demonstration of the superiority of their political systems.


Though sport enters into politics in many parts of the world, it is particularly political in Asia. Dr. Cha explained that the infrequency of major sporting events in Asia intensifies the importance of each competition that is held in the region, leading to intense politicization. Further, Dr. Cha noted that there are many historical issues in Asia that have yet to be resolved, and sports matches often become extensions of historical tensions. He explained that any major match in Asia that involves Japan will be tied to historic animosities left over from Japanese aggression in Asia in the years leading up to World War II. Sometimes these matches lead to violent confrontations between spectators and athletes that can require government intervention to quell.


Asia is a region defined by great change and variation, and in this environment the political symbolism of sporting events can take on intense meaning. The first Japanese Olympic Games after World War II, the Seoul Olympics, and the Beijing Olympics can all be seen as ‘coming out parties,’ Dr. Cha explained, where these countries announced their engagement with the international community by inviting the world to come and play sports on their new-and-improved home turf.


Dr. Cha described the recent Beijing Olympics as a good example of the intersection of sport and politics. This was a hugely significant event not just for China but for an international community that is coming to terms with China’s emergence as a world power. Further, China clearly had priorities in the hosting of these Games that were not solely athletic and which spilled over into domestic and international politics. Dr. Cha explained that in order for China to claim these Games as a success, it would have to meet four goals: to perform well in the athletic events, to be a good host and organizer, to deal with environmental issues, and to marginalize political demonstrations.


On the surface, Dr. Cha explained, it appears that China got what it wanted out of the Olympics. Their teams placed second in the overall medal count; the Games were well organized and punctual; the environmental difficulties were significantly less than predicted; and China avoided serious protest through various, perhaps over-zealous, measures. China also “benefited” from the invasion of Georgia by Russia on the day of the opening ceremonies because the Georgian conflict became the “hard news” story, relegating China to the much friendlier “soft news” segments of most major news outlets.


The long term impacts of the Games, however, have yet to be measured. Dr. Cha argued that while many express disappointment that the liberalizing ideals of the Olympics had less effect on China than hoped, the very success of the Games raises the expectations that the Chinese people and international governments have of the Chinese government.  The Chinese people, seeing the financial expenditures required to host the Games, are beginning to wonder why those resources are not used to help mitigate poor living conditions. Compromises that the Chinese government made on international situations like Darfur due to pre-Olympic criticism will not be viewed by the international community as one-step deals but will raise the expectations of future cooperation.


Additionally, the international community also recognizes that the success and perfection of the Games was built on over-zealous tactics used by the government to suppress or silence dissent and to keep less-than-model citizens away from the games. How these and other issues related to the Games will change China politically is yet to be seen. Certainly, the legacy of these Games will reach beyond the playing field and into international politics.


Dr. Victor Cha is professor, director of Asian Studies, and holds the D.S. Song Chair in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. From 2004 to 2007, he served as the director for Asian studies at the National Security Council, where he was responsible primarily for Japan, the Korean Peninsula, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. Dr. Cha was the deputy head of delegation for the United States at the Six Party Talks in Beijing. His publications include Alignment Despite Antagonism: The United State-Korea-Japan Security Triangle (Stanford University Press, 2000), Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies (Columbia University Press, 2004), and Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia (Columbia University Press, 2008).