The Olympics: A Stage For the World’s Biggest Geopolitical Debates

Bringing together athletes from over 200 countries, the Olympic village is perhaps the closest you will ever come to a microcosm of the world. While the International Olympic Committee claims that the Olympics are politically neutral, banning political statements in the field of play and instead emphasising the unifying power of sport, the Olympics has long acted as a stage for wider geopolitical debates, and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were no different.

The Pandemic Olympics

Hosting the Olympics was an opportunity for Japan to show the world it had fully bounced back following the Triple Disaster of the 2011 earthquakes, tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear accident. But with the Covid-19 pandemic still raging across the world, and very few international leaders in attendance, the Olympics instead became a symbol of the global post-pandemic recovery, and a test of Japan’s capacity to deliver a safe and secure global event. In many ways it succeeded, with the mere fact the games were able to go ahead a success in the eyes of many, after a year and a half of limited international activity.

However, with Covid-19 cases rising in Japan ahead of the Games, and public support for hosting the games wavering, the games occurred against a relatively unsettled domestic backdrop. While the IOC has denied any link between the Games and rising number of Covid-19 cases in Japan, Japan has now reached its highest case levels since the pandemic began and with Covid-19 restrictions limiting the local economic benefits of hosting the games, support for the Japanese government has reached its lowest levels since Prime Minister Suga took office last year. Domestically then, the gamble of trying to host the Olympics in the midst of a pandemic hasn’t paid off, and while Japan’s success in being able to host an Olympics in these circumstances should be lauded, a continued uptick in its Covid-19 cases will no doubt mar the longer-term legacy of these Olympics both domestically and internationally, and limit its ability to reap the geopolitical rewards normally afforded to host countries.

Defections and Domestic Discontent

For authoritarian nations too, participation in the Olympics can bring unwanted international spotlight onto domestic discontent. In Tokyo, the defection of Belarusian sprinter Kristina Timanovskaya was the most prominent example of these risks. After publicly criticising her coaches, the Belarusian regime ordered Timanovskaya’s immediate return from Tokyo. After seeking help from Japanese officials, she defected to Poland, fearing reprisals if she returned to Belarus. The two Belarusian coaches who tried to force Timanovskaya on a plane to Minsk subsequently had their accreditations rescinded and were expelled from the Olympic village. Heptathlete Yana Maksimava who competed in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics and who hopes to be involved in the 2024 Olympics followed suit, announcing that she would remain in Germany over concerns for her life should she return to Belarus.

Timanovskaya’s public defection has brought attention back onto President Alexander Lukashenko’s rule, a year after mass protests broke out in Belarus over alleged election rigging. Since then, President Lukashenko has led a harsh crackdown on opponents, who have complained of arbitrary detention and torture. The decision to recall Timanovskaya is a clear signal of the growing limitations of freedom of speech in Belarus, and the need for other nations to respond. On the anniversary of the disputed presidential election in Belarus, the UK, United States and Canada announced new trade, financial and aviation restrictions on the regime, although experts have warned that the impact of the sanctions is likely to be undermined by the country’s strong economic ties to Russia. The defection of two leading sporting stars has undoubtedly drawn attention to the situation in Belarus but may also render such efforts more dangerous in the future.

Myanmar’s participation in the Olympics has been similarly fraught. While the welcoming of Myanmar’s Deputy Minister for Health and Sports, U Myo Hlaing, to the Olympics has been perceived as a sanction of Myanmar’s government, Win Htet Oo’s decision to drop out of the Olympics, rather than compete under the Myanmar flag, left Myanmar publicly red-faced. The athlete declared that he “shall not march in the (opening ceremony’s) Parade of Nations under a flag steeped in my people’s blood” and called for Myanmar to be expelled from the Olympics on the grounds that “genocidaires do not deserve to be in the Olympics”, following the country’s military coup in the country in February.

The Russian Olympic Committee

Although Russia was formally banned from the Tokyo Olympics after a state-sponsored doping scandal, a number of Russian athletes were permitted to compete under the title ‘Russian Olympic Committee’ (ROC), finishing fifth in the medal table overall. However, their participation remained mired in controversy, with a number of athletes, particularly American athletes, publicly criticising the presence of Russian athletes. American rower Megan Kalmoe declared that the ROC crew “shouldn’t even be here”, and that seeing them win silver was a “nasty feeling”. Although ostensibly this frustration stems from the doping allegations, the geopolitical situation is also likely to be playing a role in intensifying the discontent.

In turn, Russia has used the treatment of the ROC team to fuel its broader narrative that the West poses an increasing threat to Russia, made evident in its recent update to its National Security Strategy. Russian news outlets spoke of how the Games were “the clearest example of Russophobia”, while the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko sent a request to the International Gymnastics Federation about judging in the gymnastics, claiming that there was not an “objective and fair appraisal of performances of Russian athletes” after Russia’s decades-long dominance of rhythmic gymnastics came to an end. In feeding Russia’s narrative of its victimhood, the Olympics have therefore served to reinforce existing geopolitical divides, rather than to bring people together in the way the organisers hope.

All Eyes on China

China’s seismic economic and geopolitical rise in recent decades has been matched by an ever-growing medal haul, with China winning 38 gold medals at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, more than double the 16 won back in Atlanta in 1996. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for China, as it was pipped at the post for first place in the medals table by the United States, a nation with whom its relationship continues to deteriorate.

The loss will have been made all the more bitter by the fact China narrowly lost out on gold in the badminton to ‘Chinese Taipei’, the name Taiwan competes under in the Olympics, and in the table tennis to Japan – a geopolitical relationship that is becoming increasingly fractious. The doubles badminton win by Chinese Taipei was particularly notable, with Taiwanese news outlets celebrating how the win had kept China off the top of the medals table. And while technically competing under the title of Chinese Taipei, the Taiwanese athletes were quick to assert their win as a win for Taiwan as a nation, with Lee Yang, one half of the winning badminton doubles team, dedicating the win to “my country, Taiwan”, while President Tsai Ing-wen congratulated the team for “winning the first badminton gold medal in our country”. In turn, the Chinese silver medallists, congratulated the gold medallists as “our Taipei, China team” with three Chinese flag emojis. Regional responses to Chinese Taipei’s participation in the Games were also notable, with Japanese and Korean broadcasters both referring to Chinese Taipei as Taiwan during the official coverage of the opening ceremony, a move that was strongly condemned by China.

Hong Kong also competed as a team at the Olympics, under the name ‘Hong Kong China’, winning six medals, making it their most successful Olympics ever. However, while this success has been celebrated domestically as a sign of Hong Kong’s ability to thrive alone on the world stage, these celebrations have once again reinforced tensions between Hong Kong and China. In Hong Kong, when the Chinese national anthem played after Cheung Ka-Long’s gold medal win, it was met with boos and chants of “We’re Hong Kong” in a mall, resulting in the subsequent arrest of a man on suspicion of breaking the National Anthem Ordinance.

Looking Ahead to Beijing 2022 And Beyond

There will be no escape from the geopolitical pressure-cooking as the next 2022 Winter Olympics are set to be held in Beijing – making it the first city to host both the Summer and the Winter Olympics. China will no doubt seek to leverage the Winter Olympics as an opportunity to showcase China’s growing strength, with NGOs such as Human Rights Watch warning that the Winter Olympics could become a “triumphal Chinese communist spectacle in the snow”. There have already been a number of calls to boycott the games over China’s treatment of Uighurs, with the European Parliament already passing a resolution calling on diplomatic officials to boycott the Games – a proposition that seems more likely than a complete athletic boycott.

It will be difficult in such circumstances to maintain the position of the Olympics as a ‘neutral’ space for sporting excellence. Russia’s Olympic ban does not end until December 2022, and so it will compete again as the ROC at the Winter Olympics, while other athletes will no doubt continue to use the Olympics as an opportunity to spotlight domestic political challenges, creating challenges particularly for autocratic regimes. After a global pandemic and in the face of a fracturing world order, the geopolitical and soft power benefits of hosting the Olympic Games will increasingly be called into question.

Nonetheless, the regular Olympic cycle will most likely continue on, with all the excitement, drama and controversy that inevitably entails. After Beijing will come Paris in 2024, with the hosts already promoting the fact that the Paris 2024 Olympics “will be unlike any other Games in history as they will be both spectacular and sustainable”. It also hopes to use the event to drive employment and has joined forces with trade unions to sign a social charter designed to ensure fair and decent working conditions for Paris 2024 contracts. In doing so it looks to avoid some of the controversies that other major sporting events have faced, such as Qatar’s 2022 FIFA World Cup, and to maximise the soft power success of the Olympics. For hosts, holding the Olympics will always be both an honour and a gamble, but in these uncertain times the gamble is now bigger than ever.

Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group