The Olympics and Geopolitics

Commentary No. 267, October 15, 2009

The modern Olympics are supposed to be about two things: promoting peace around the world by non-violent competition that is above politics, and exalting athletic achievement. No doubt most athletes enter Olympic competition with the latter in mind. But promoting peace seems to be about the last thing on the minds of the governments whose support for their national athletic structures has always been crucial to the success of their national participants.

This has of course been true from the very beginning. The famed originator of the modern Olympics, Baron de Coubertin, was born in 1863. He is said to have been brought up meditating on the national trauma most of the French suffered as a result of their defeat by the Germans in 1871. It seems he decided the defeat was the result of the lack of emphasis in French education on the importance of athletic skills, unlike in Great Britain and Germany, and he set about to rectify this.

As the years have gone by, national expenditures on Olympic preparation have steadily increased. Both winning the choice of site for the Olympic Games and winning the games themselves became ever more an important objective of governments. Geopolitics has never been absent from the games.

Throughout the Cold War, the competition between the blocs was counted in the numbers of gold medals won. The boycott by the United States and other Western nations of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 was followed by the Soviet boycott of the 1984 games in Los Angeles. The list of countries that could compete was determined by Cold War arguments about the legitimacy of states and their boundaries.

So it is not surprising that the recent voting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Copenhagen that decided the site of the 2016 games was interpreted by the world press through geopolitical lenses. Indeed the world press has been giving increasing attention to these quadrennial decisions of the IOC because of the fact that heads of governments have now taken to become direct lobbyists for their candidate for an Olympic site. So, given the presence of the leaders of Brazil, Spain, and Japan at the Copenhagen meeting, it was clear that Barack Obama had also to show up to put in his plea for Chicago.

The bookies who take bets on the outcomes of such contests had given odds on to Chicago, primarily on the basis of Obama’s announcement that he would attend in person. On the first round of the secret voting, the results split four ways between the four candidates. But to the great shock of the U.S. press, athletic leaders, and politicians, Chicago came in not first but fourth, and was eliminated on the first round.

By the third round, Rio had emerged the victor with two-thirds of the votes, an unusually large margin. It is not difficult to discern why this was so. While Rio is no doubt an attractive site in itself, the IOC members were voting less for Rio than for Brazil. The three other candidates were all from the North – the United States, Spain, and Japan. Brazil represented the South.

President Lula had made as his principal public argument that South America was the only continent that had never hosted an Olympics Winter Games. This is true, but I think Fidel Castro was more correct when he exultantly described the vote as the “triumph of the Third World.”

Nor was it just any country of the Third World that won the vote. It was Brazil, one of the rising giants of the South. Lula himself said after the vote: “(Brazil) went from being a second-class country to a first-class country, and today we began to receive the respect we deserve.”

“The respect we deserve” – and haven’t received in the past – this was Brazil’s exultation, and it was shared by the rest of the Third World.

Was it a rebuff for Obama? Of course it was – not for him personally, but for the United States. However popular Obama is around the world, and he is popular, he remains president of the United States. The vote was a clear geopolitical put down. It isn’t as though Obama could have done better. And had he not gone at all, the U.S. public might have blamed the loss on his absence.

Losing a vote on an Olympic site is not as bad as having U.S. bases in Afghanistan overrun by Taliban, but it’s part of the same picture.

Now that Obama has received the Nobel Prize for Peace, will that change things for U.S. diplomacy? Momentarily, perhaps. But the underlying situation remains the same. Indeed, it will make Obama’s position in some ways more difficult, because he will now be measured by a still higher standard.