Sports and Politics: A Steady Relationship

Daniel McGowinCorrespondent IApril 15, 2009

BEIJING - AUGUST 09:  The flags of (L-R) Chinese Taipei, China and Turkey are lifted for Silver medalist Sibel Ozkan of Turkey, gold medalist Chen Xiexia of China and bronze medalist Chen Wei-Ling of Chinese Taipei during the medal ceremony for the Women's 48kg Group A Weightlifting event held at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics Gymnasium on Day 1 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 9, 2008 in Beijing, China.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Clive Rose/Getty Images

In June of last year, Yani Tseng defeated Maria Hjorth in a four-hole, sudden death playoff to win the McDonald's LPGA Championship.  The victory was significant not only for Tseng, but also her home country of Taiwan as it was the first time a Taiwanese golfer had won an LPGA major.

Unfortunately, this is a rare moment in the sport world's sun for Taiwan.  Not because Taiwan is usually unsuccessful in sports, but "Taiwan" does not exist in most sports, namely team sports.  This speaks to the political nature of sports.

The Olympics, the pinnacle for international sporting competition, and the IOC have always prided itself on keeping politics and sports separate.  Contained in the Olympic Charter are passages that attempt to keep the Games apolitical. 

Chapter One, Article Six states that the "Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries." 

Also, one of the fundamental principles of Olympism states that any "form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement" (emphasis added).

Yet, despite these gestures, we know that actions speak louder than words.  Sports and politics enjoy a long and healthy relationship in international competition.

The fact that countries come in separately to begin the Games, national anthems and flags are used during medal ceremonies, and that there is a medal count for countries makes such statements seem hypocritical. 

International championships such as the World Cup of soccer or cricket, the Six Nations Championship for rugby, or FIBA's basketball championships promote nationalism as there are countries—actual politically-defined entities—competing.

Nationalism and national pride for a country's triumph is one way that politics enters sports.  Even with the globalization of sports, representing your country is important to many athletes.

While Tony Parker, Ichiro Suzuki, and Daniel Alfredsson compete on club teams in North America, each proudly play for their respective national teams in international events—France, Japan, and Sweden respectively.

Usually this promotion of national pride is a positive aspect of the politicization of sports.  The U.S. men's swim team's Olsen twins-thin victory over France in the 4x100 relay at Beijing provided the country with a surge of pride, while France felt utter disappointment.

Oftentimes, victory or success can also stir the emotions of countries that have overcome difficulties such as civil war or colonialism.  Soccer provides some of the best examples of this. 

Iraq's men's team made a dramatic run in the 2004 Olympics, finishing fourth with a team that was comprised of the three main groups in the country—Kurds, Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims.

The 2002 World Cup started off with a major surprise as Senegal upset defending champ and former colonizer France 1-0.  South Korea stunned the United States with a 1-1 draw on a goal by Ahn Jung-Hwan, whose celebration conjured up memories of an earlier disqualification of Korean speedskater Kim Dong-Sung at the 2002 Winter Games.

Later, in the knockout stage, Ahn scored the winner against Italy, prompting backlash in Italy and AC Perugia to claim Ahn had ruined Italian football (Ahn was on loan to Perugia at the time).

As the two situations with Ahn suggest, sports can be used as a political weapon to make certain statements.  His speed skating celebration was aimed at what he, and many Koreans, felt was unjust punishment for his countryman who was disqualified for blocking U.S. skater Apolo Anton Ohno. 

Perugia's statement, which was later retracted, hints at the importance of soccer to the country of Italy and how devastating it was for Italy to fall to a Korean team again (they also lost 1-0 to North Korea in 1966, keeping Azzurri from advancing out of the group).

The Olympics and the IOC frown upon any usage of politics in sports.  But politics have always found a way into the Games—sometimes off the field and sometimes on the field.  The most stunning example is the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, where eleven Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian gunmen.

Other examples are less tragic, but still promote politics over sports. 

Boycotts of international sporting events, especially the Olympics, are quite common as seen by the U.S. and many Western countries boycotting the 1980 Moscow Games, subsequently followed by the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Bloc members not participating in the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Individual athletes can also boycott an event because of politics.  At the 2004 Athens Games, Iranian judo champion Arash Miresmaeli refused to compete against Israeli Ehud Vaks. 

While he was officially disqualified for being over the weight restriction, Miresmaeli had stated that he refused to fight because of the "oppressed Palestinian people."  Furthermore, Iranian judo competitors had pulled similar acts in previous matchups with Israeli competitors.

But these are all individuals or countries that are politicizing sports, not organizations.  The IOC would never politicize the Olympics, right?

Well, despite the fact that the Olympic Charter states otherwise, the Olympics have been politically-infused and have been so for quite some time now.  South Africa being barred from the Olympics from 1964 (Tokyo) until being reinstated for the 1992 Games (Barcelona) is the classic example of the IOC taking a political stand.

This ban, pushed in part by the United Nations' call for a voluntary boycott, was in response to South Africa's policy of apartheid.

Another example is banning of Indonesia from participating in the 1964 Tokyo Games.  The IOC made this decision because Indonesia had barred athletes from Israel and Taiwan from participating in the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta.

Despite stating that it would allow unrecognized countries to participate in the Asian Games, Indonesia was influenced by Islamic states and China to not issue visas for athletes from Israel or Taiwan respectively (South Korea, another country not recognized by Indonesia at the time, was allowed to participate).

This decision by Indonesia led to the IOC suspending Indonesia and its Olympic Committee (KOI) from the Olympics.  Indonesia, under the direction of President Sukarno, would withdraw not only from the IOC but also the United Nations.

The IOC's stand was in line with its policy to keep politics out of sports, which Indonesia clearly ignored.  However, the IOC's own action was politically driven.  Furthermore, as Indonesia would point out, the IOC was being hypocritical and seemed to be harshly punishing a "third world" country.

At the 1920 Antwerp Games, Belgium denied visas to German athletes because Germany was still considered an enemy due to World War I.  Similarly, in the early 1960s, East German athletes were denied visas to events in France and the United States. 

In each of these cases, the IOC did not punish the country that had used sports to make a political statement.

In Sukarno's opinion, the IOC had unfairly used the Olympics as a political tool to punish non-Western countries.  Partially due to this, Sukarno organized the Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO).  The seeds for GANEFO were planted prior to Indonesia's conflict with the IOC.

It is worth briefly mentioning what GANEFO meant to Indonesia.  GANEFO was organized as a political tool for Sukarno and Indonesia.  The purpose of GANEFO, at least from Sukarno's standpoint, was to promote Indonesia as the leader of a new world order that would challenge the old order of Western imperialism.

All of this gets back to Taiwan, and its participation in international competition.

Those that follow international sporting events such as the Olympics know that there is no "Taiwan" in the sporting world; only "Chinese Taipei."  The use of such a label is politically-loaded, and the IOC is at fault for relegating the Taiwanese to such a label.

The reason for the use of "Chinese Taipei" goes back to the notion of "one China."  Taiwan is officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), while "China" (or mainland China) is officially known as the People's Republic of China (PRC).

These labels stem from the Chinese Civil War, which led to the PRC gaining control of the mainland while the ROC fled to the island of Taiwan.

Both Chinas (PRC and ROC) claimed that they were the rightful government over the land of China.  When it came to the IOC and other international organizations (including the United Nations), the Republic of China was recognized as "China."

Therefore, from 1956 until 1972, "China" was represented by the ROC while the PRC did not participate.

Things changed in the 1970s as the United States shifted it recognition of "China" from the ROC to the PRC.  The normalization of relations between the two countries led many other countries and international organizations to do the same. 

The IOC recognized the Chinese Olympic Committee (of the PRC), while changing the name of the ROC's committee to the National Olympic Committee of Chinese Taipei.

Today, Chinese Taipei represents the ROC or Taiwan in almost every major international competition, from beauty pageants to the World Baseball Classic. 

While the name itself was actually derived by the long-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party in Taiwan, its usage, couple with the disallowance of the ROC flag and national anthem, strips Taiwan/ROC of its nationalism.

This is inconsistent with the principles of the IOC and international competition not only because politics are brought into sports, but also because of previous precedents set before Taiwan.

While the United Kingdom competes in the Olympics as one, unified country, it is not the same in soccer, rugby, cricket and other sports.  England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales all have teams that compete individually in those sports.

Territorial possessions also compete under their own name and own flag.  Guam and Puerto Rico both compete in the Olympics despite being territories of the United States.  The Faeroe Islands, an autonomous province of Denmark, take part in World Cup qualifying separate from the Danish.

Even nations without a country of their own compete internationally.  The Iroquois nation competes under its own flag in international lacrosse tournaments.

Additionally, countries pushing for independence have been allowed to compete in the Olympics separate from the country they are fighting. 

In 2000, East Timor, under the Olympic flag, was allowed to send athletes to Sydney separate from Indonesia.  Palestine has sent athletes under its own flag since the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Despite all of this, Taiwan/ROC continues to go under the moniker of "Chinese Taipei."  When the Taiwanese have won gold, they do not hear their national anthem nor do they see their national flag raised.  It relegates Taiwan to the level of a "non-state," and it is part of the politics that the IOC and Olympics play.

Sports and politics seem very much inseparable, but a divorce is needed.  Perhaps a divorce that allows politics "visitation rights," as the role of sports in promoting national pride is a positive thing.

One thing is for certain, if we learned anything from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, politics will always find a place in sports.