International sports leaders have long billed their events as forces for peace in the world. This idealistic conception is rooted largely in the ideals of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French aristocrat remembered as the father of the modern Olympic movement. At an 1894 meeting in Paris in which he secured support for a new set of competitions built in the image of those offered at ancient Olympia, the he joyfully declared, "May joy and good fellowship reign, and in this manner, may the Olympic torch pursue its way through ages, increasing friendly understanding among nations, for the good of a humanity always more enthusiastic, more courageous and more pure."
Similar expressions of high ideals are espoused often — and not just by sports officials. During a September 2009 effort to bring the Olympics to his home city of Chicago, U.S. President Barack Obama asserted: "We find ourselves riveted by the games. Because even as we cheer, even as we live and die for each point or each tenth of a second, what we see reflected in the Olympic and Paralympic Games are simple truths of our common humanity." At the U.N. General Assembly in November 2017, its president, Miroslav Lajcak, spoke eloquently in this regard. "First, simply put, sport can bring people together," he said. "It is founded on universal values. These include discipline, fairness, and respect for opponents and rules. We might speak different languages, or have different customs or viewpoints. However, once we step out onto a field or court, we are all part of the same system. In this way, sport can be a universal tool, which can promote both peace and unity."
These stirring words of internationalist ideals aside, the real genius of de Coubertin was his realization that in order to survive, the Olympics would need to harness the power of nationalism and international rivalry. The reconstituted Olympics were plagued with initial organizational and financial woes, which very nearly killed the movement in its crib. For a time, it appeared as if the inaugural competition in Athens, Greece, might not be held due to a lack of funding.
The succeeding event four years later was an organizational failure, as far as the Olympics were concerned. Those games were held as part of the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The decision to combine the sporting competition with the World's Fair was made with the belief that it would help to boost public interest in the competitions. But most of the preparations for the combined event were focused on the non-sporting aspects of the exposition. The athletic events received comparatively little in the way of publicity, and the facilities arranged for them were so inadequate that many who attended the competitions (including some of the competitors themselves) were not certain whether they were at an actual Olympic event or not. De Coubertin remarked sadly, "It’s a miracle the Olympic movement survived these Games."
The (1908) London Games helped to entrench the Olympics as a key site for the expression of national identity.
When St. Louis won the rights to host the next Olympics (thanks to the machinations of city representatives) over the original choice of Chicago, de Coubertin was so disappointed that he chose not to attend. Here again the Olympics were overshadowed — this time by the city's 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition.
A turning point for the modern Olympics came through a set of disputes between the British and American teams at the 1908 Games in London. Although at the time seen by Olympic leaders as worrisome and regrettable, the disagreements defined the games in nationalistic terms that caught the fancy of fans and set a template for future Olympics. As noted historians Steven W. Pope and John Nauright explain: "The fourth Olympics turned into a battle between English and American athletes, officials, and spectators. At a time when the United States challenged Britain for the political, economic, and athletic leadership of the western world (at least), the 1908 Games simplified the larger rivalry in terms easily understood by a receptive American public." The London Games, in short, helped to entrench the Olympics as a key site for the expression of national identity. It was only in such a context that de Coubertin's movement could thrive.
Divided We Stand
The ensuing history of nationalism in the Olympics is a long one. Major events in the story include the 1936 "Nazi" Olympics in Berlin, the Cold War boycotts and the recent instances of Russian doping. But I do want to make the point that any assumption about an inherent unifying effect of sport is fundamentally flawed. In fact, athletic competitions have on occasion added greatly to tensions between countries. To take perhaps the most extreme example, in 1969 a so-called "soccer war" took place between El Salvador and Honduras. In this conflict, friction over migration patterns between the two countries (as well as their resulting labor and land-use effects) received a final spark when their national teams faced off in a series of three World Cup qualifying matches. Rioting at the events led, in turn, to broader acts of violence and then finally to military intervention; the economic and human effects of the 100-hour war were devastating.
In a 2011 article in the SAIS Review of International Affairs (published by the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies), the brilliant sports sociologist John Hoberman went as far to say, "[The] widespread belief in the peace-promoting function of international sport is rooted in a kind of 'magical thinking.'" I'm not sure that I'd go quite that far. It is true that without careful planning, sport will do little to promote amity between peoples; indeed, in the worst cases (such as in the soccer war) it can actually exacerbate tensions. If applied thoughtfully, however, sport can serve a useful role in certain scenarios.
The tradition of the Olympic truce, which was a hallmark of the ancient games, merits attention on this point. In July 1992, the IOC issued an appeal asking that "during the period [starting seven days before and ending seven days after an Olympic competition], all armed conflicts, and any acts related to, inspired by or akin to such conflicts, shall cease, whatever the reason, cause or means of perpetration thereof." The United Nations passed a resolution in support of the initiative the following year. And the truce has had some success. During the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, temporary cease-fires were obtained for the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Georgia and the Sudan. Most recently (I myself am a cynic on the subject), much has been made in the news media about the astonishing developments that took place at the "Peace Olympics" this past February in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
I hope, of course, that the improved relations between the two Koreas will prove permanent. Before assuming too much about Pyeongchang, however, contemporary observers would do well to reflect upon other historical examples — such as the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo. Those games undoubtedly helped the Yugoslav regime paper over the ethnic differences that boiled under the surface of the socialist republic. But less than a decade later, after Yugoslavia disintegrated, its ethnic groups were at one another's throats, and Sarajevo's once-proud Olympic venues became a killing ground of artillery fire and sniper's nests as the city underwent one of the longest sieges in modern warfare. The tragedy of Sarajevo serves as a reminder of the differences between lofty ideals and all-too-common reality.