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Nationalism, Competition, and Diplomacy: Asia at the 2012 London Olympics

An Interview with Victor Cha

By Sheela Lal
July 24, 2012


A rising Asia, particularly the emergence of China and India as global powers, affects global expectations for the region, including how the Asia-Pacific competes in sports. This was most evident during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where China won more gold medals than any other country.

The 2012 Olympic Games, hosted in London, will provide a different arena in which to examine Asia and global politics. To learn more about the significance of these games, NBR spoke with Victor Cha (Georgetown University), author of Beyond the Final Score: the Politics of Sport in Asia, about the increased prominence of Asian countries at the Olympics and what he expects from the London games.


What do you expect of Asian countries at the London games?

It is undeniable that the Olympics mirror great-power competitions in some fashion. For those who are old enough to remember, the U.S.-Soviet competitions during the Olympics had major meaning for Cold War politics. The Soviets from 1952 were determined to demonstrate through the superiority of their athletes that their social and political system was better than that of the West. While it might not have been as acute as George Orwell once described (he said sport was “war minus the shooting”), major powers come to the competition sporting their “A game” and take great pride in their position in the medal count.

China has already established itself as a major player in this regard and is certain to be among the top medal winners, if not the top. India is still a potential major competitor in the Olympics, with emphasis on “potential.” The country still has a long way to go to rival the other powers, which will not happen without a major domestic push to cultivate world-class athletes. The incentives to perform well at the games are not just about pride for governments. Many Asian cities want to be a future host (e.g., when Beijing bid for the 2008 Olympic Games, all the candidate cities were from Asia), and a big part of a successful candidacy is demonstrating that a country has world-class athletes. So expect to see Asian countries continue to climb the ranks of the medal count winners.


The United States has declared its intent to rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific. Some experts have questioned to what extent this heightens broader U.S. tensions with China. In your view, has renewed U.S. attention on the region led to an increased sense of U.S.-Sino competition. If so, how will this affect how both sides view one another at the games?

As the established power and rising power in the international system, there will be undeniable political overtones to the positions of the United States and China in the medal standings. Journalists will write about how the medal count represents a power transition (if the U.S. loses) or an auguring of the inevitable (if China’s numbers outpace those of the last games). Nationalism is intense in China, and I believe that if the Chinese are pitted against the Americans in any event, there will be special attention paid to every victory as yet another sign of China’s rise. This narrative will be less apparent on the U.S. side, I think. The irony is that while Chinese officials always spout the line that sports should not be about politics, it is undeniable that their entire state-run sports machine is designed to demonstrate the superiority of their athletes, and hence the strength of their “state-society” model, when compared with the West.


The United States also has very strong national sentiments about the Olympics. One issue that has sparked outcry recently is the revelation that the U.S. Olympic uniforms are not manufactured in the United States, and moreover, are manufactured in China. What is your read on this controversy?

I don’t know how much of a controversy it really is that the uniforms were made in China. What I mean is that the pre-Olympic news cycle is a constant search of stories in the run-up to the games. If the games are hosted by illiberal regimes (e.g., Seoul in 1988, China in 2008, and Sochi in 2014), the news cycle is taken up by political stories—stories of protests by groups seeking to leverage the Olympic limelight as a way to embarrass the regime for illiberal practices. Or, the issues tend to focus on logistics or air quality (e.g., Mexico City in 1968, Los Angeles in 1984, and Beijing in 2008). With the London games, there is not a whole lot that is controversial about location.

I have watched the press coverage in advance of Olympics in the past, and relatively speaking, this is a pretty quiet games. There are no major controversies; the most important one seemed to be about the “plastic Brits”—transplanted world-class athletes who represent Britain but are not regular residents of the country. The absence of controversy is not a bad thing, because it allows the focus to be on the sports. The media, however, prior to the Olympics abhors a vacuum, and so the controversy about these “un-American” U.S. Olympic uniforms has arisen (were not the U.S. uniforms prior to the 2008 Beijing games also made in China?). But all these issues will disappear once the games begin and the story is all about the sports.


Although the games are envisioned as apolitical, many groups have used them to highlight internal politics and issues of national concern, such as the treatment of African-Americans in the United States, China’s policies on Tibet, or Australia’s treatment of ethnic minorities. Given that the 2012 games are held outside Asia, should we expect any groups to focus on tensions and conflicts within that region?

This dynamic of using the games to highlight political issues of concern is something that I have termed the “Olympic catch-22”—illiberal regimes want the Olympics to show off their national wares, but the Olympic spotlight is then used by others to show all of the regimes’ flaws. The regime cannot simply ignore all these complaints, because that would undermine the original purpose of the Olympics, which is to make it look good. We saw this dynamic in Beijing and Seoul, and we will probably see it in Sochi. But with the games in London, I don’t think the same sort of leverage exists for these groups. They need the games to be hosted in the country in which the grievances exist.


While the Olympic Games are competitive, they can also offer an opportunity for diplomacy through sport. How might these Olympics help lessen tensions in the South China Sea, across the India-Pakistan border, or elsewhere in the region?

Yes, since the famed ping-pong diplomacy of U.S.-China relations, there has always been the aspiration for sports to open up diplomatic possibilities that years of regular foreign policy demarches could not. I think the key dynamic to remember here is that sport only really has a positive effect on outcomes in foreign policy when it is a complement to diplomatic undercurrents that are already moving in a positive direction. Ping-pong diplomacy worked in no small part because Nixon and Kissinger were already in secret negotiations with Zhou Enlai about Sino-American rapprochement. Without such friendly strategic undercurrents, countries can still share a nice moment that shows sport transcending politics—for example, Indians and Pakistanis shaking hands or North and South Koreans cheering each other on (against the Japanese). But these will be exactly that—moments—that will not plug into a broader diplomatic shift.


The Olympics offer North Korea, an extremely marginalized country, an opportunity to participate on the international stage. How might the recent leadership transition to Kim Jong-un and heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula affect the North Korean athletes in the London Olympics?

There are no signs that North Korean athletes will excel at these Olympics (although we could always be surprised). I don’t think there will be much to learn about the new leadership from the London games (unless Kim Jong-un shows up for them). It would seem to me that there is more downside for North Korea at the games in terms of political embarrassment (i.e., defections) than upside. The team, when it enters the stadium, will be welcomed by the audience happily, but that may be its best moment on the international stage.


What athletes and matches are you most looking forward to watching at these games?

U.S. basketball and Olympic tennis at Wimbledon.



Sheela Lal is an Intern at The National Bureau of Asian Research.


Victor Cha is a professor of government and director for Asian studies at Georgetown University. From 2010 to 2012, Dr. Cha served as a Research Associate with the National Asia Research Program, a joint initiative between NBR and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.