While diverse in nature, this month’s biggest stories touching on geopolitics and sports share two common threads: We’ve touched on each of them in the past, and they foreshadow some of the things we will be looking at quite closely in 2018.
The Winter Games: Will They or Won't They?
In the wake of November's test launch of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile, more joint exercises by the U.S. and South Korean militaries, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s semi-regular prodding of North Korea's leaders on Twitter, it was unsurprising when Olympic security concerns, which Austin Duckworth had examined in a September column, made U.S. headlines earlier this month.
After U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley commented that participation in the Pyeongchang Games by the U.S. Olympic team was an "open question," an initial statement by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders indicated that "no official decision has been made" on U.S. participation. Sanders later tweeted that "the US looks forward to participating in the Winter Olympics." Those pronouncements aside, in the weird world of sport governance, the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) is not exactly beholden to the government's wishes: In response to Haley and Sanders' comments, the USOC stated that it had had no discussions about skipping the games. Of course, while national Olympic committees ostensibly operate independently of state interference, the reality is that governments do exact varying levels of influence on them, and if things really came to a head, the Trump administration could exert tremendous pressure on the USOC to stay at home. I don’t see this happening, although a few more suggestions of a boycott may surface between now and February. This is par for the course in the post-Cold War Olympic era, where the realpolitik of international sport dictates that participating in the games is simply too lucrative (financially and otherwise) to miss out on.
The U.S. presence in Pyeongchang seems all the more guaranteed now that Russia has been formally banned from participating. The United States always expects a strong Olympics performance, but a weakened field resulting from the Russian ban opens the door for even more medals. It goes without saying that the International Olympic Committee's ruling on Russia was the sports story of the month. Thomas Hunt detailed this news last week, but the effects of the ban will become more clear in the coming weeks, especially as we get a sense of how many Russian athletes will elect to compete under the neutral Olympic flag, even more so now that President Vladimir Putin has given his blessing to the athletes to do so.
The long tail of the Russian doping scandal will carry on at least through the summer, when the country hosts the FIFA World Cup.
And in Non-Russia News ...
Regular readers may be wondering if we should just retitle this space, "this month in Russian sports intrigue," but a couple of other interesting stories appeared on our radars over the last couple weeks. First, Shohei Ohtani, the heralded two-way Japanese baseball star, finally came to terms with a Major League Baseball club, the Los Angeles Angels. Earlier in the year, Lauren Osmer suggested that this may be the year that Ohtani (who recently insisted that he prefers his last name be spelled with an "h" on his jersey) makes his anticipated arrival in the United States, despite recent rule changes that limit international spending by Major League Baseball teams.
Second, basketball superdad LaVar Ball — who we met in last month’s play-by-play — was again in the headlines. Having moved on from his Twitter war with Trump, Ball announced that he was taking his two younger sons out of college and high school and sending them to a small village in Lithuania, where they will play professionally for the not-very-well-known Prienai-Birstonas Vytautas team. This seems par for the course for Ball, the boisterous, self-promoting patriarch of a self-proclaimed basketball dynasty whose eldest son is in his rookie year with the Los Angeles Lakers.
In and of themselves, these two stories are just part of the day-to-day of American sports, but both are also representative of deeper movements in elite world sport, where the United States is still the most influential nation, but it is part of an increasingly globalized system. In Ohtani’s story, we see the tension surrounding sport's labor flows, where performance occasionally clashes with protectionism and artificial marketplace concerns. With the Ball family effectively turning professional as teenagers, we are seeing the most publicized test case of a challenge to the U.S. status quo of using college sports as an unpaid, de facto developmental system for the pros. While American basketball stars have regularly gone abroad to earn good livings playing the game, very few have launched careers overseas with the later hope of returning to NBA fame and glory. That there is a viable market for two decently talented Southern California teenagers to sign contracts in small-town Lithuania only confirms that things are changing and in interesting ways.
Thank You and Looking Ahead
Over the final two weeks of the year, we’ll publish some holiday special columns looking at sports on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, respectively. Of course the holiday season also provides an opportunity to reflect and to humbly proffer some gratitude. On behalf of my colleague Thomas Hunt and the other writers who have appeared in this space since it first appeared earlier this year, I’d like to offer a heartfelt thank-you to the Stratfor publishing team and to everyone who has taken the time to read our work.
In the analysis of both sports and geopolitics, we balance the predictable with the unpredictable. Looking to the year ahead, we can be sure that there will be plenty to contemplate from the Olympics, the World Cup and the ongoing globalization of the sports universe. We can also be sure that there will be plenty of developments that we weren’t expecting, but that we'll certainly try to make sense of. Along the way, we plan to introduce you to additional voices from the field and continue to examine the history of sports from a geopolitical perspective, including a remembrance of the tumultuous Mexico City Olympics, which are nearing their 50th anniversary. We hope you will continue to join us!