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Sports Diplomacy: A Chinese Perspective

Sports Diplomacy: A Chinese Perspective

In 2008, China became the 22nd nation to host the Olympic Games. It was the first time the old nation organized the world’s biggest sports event, welcoming more than 10,000 athletes on its soil. More than five years later, China remains at the forefront of global sport and politics. Doping allegations over two swimmers and the issue of the country’s state-controlled training system are evidence of the politicization of sport in a Chinese perspective.

Even though the Olympic Charter stands against the use of sport for political purposes, international competitions have often played a crucial role in terms of diplomacy. In the beginning of the 20th century, however, China was isolated from the Western sports system. In spite of its large population, the country did not send any athletes to the nine first Olympic Games.

After the Revolution, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) decided to take part in the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. The Communist party took advantage of this event to gain international recognition. They created the All-China Sport Federation, which became the Chinese Olympic Committee (COC). This action also contributed to foster cohesion within the country. The situation remained unclear, as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) invited both athletes from the PRC and Taiwan to participate in the 1952 Games. Four years later in Melbourne, Australia, the COC withdrew from the IOC, as the latter had decided to invite the Republic of China in Taiwan and not the PRC. With regard to this situation, Indonesian President Sukarno said: “The international Olympic Games have proved to be openly an imperialist tool […] They said to have sport without politics in the Olympic Games […] When the excluded communist China, is that not politics?”.

In the 1970s, the ping-pong diplomacy launched by the Chinese and American presidents helped to reduce the tensions between both countries. In 1989, following the crackdown on the Tienanmen demonstrations, China got sanctionned by the Western nations. Nevertheless, the Chinese support to the 1988 Olympic Games held in Seoul paid off, as South Korean President Roh Tae Woo saw an opportunity to normalize their relationship with Beijing in 1990 (the Chinese capital was hosting the Asian Games). The diplomatic success of this event led the Chinese to normalize their relationships with their Laotian and Vietnamese neighbors.

The end of the Cold War witnessed the emergence of non-governmental organisations, transnational corporations, the media and even individual initiatives. When the Olympics were awarded to Beijing in 2001, numerous people and associations criticized China’s censorship policy and human rights violations. For the Chinese governement, the Games were a chance to show the economic, cultural, social and political developments of the country. The world powers, led by the United States, tried to put pressure on China on two central issues: China’s policy in Darfur and Tibet. Beijing called for the competition not to be politicized and kept the same position towards Tibet, legitimately considering it as a domestic issue.

The Beijing Olympiad showed that sports and politics are increasingly becoming tangled together. The opening ceremony gathered 54 heads of state and 10 royal dignitaries. More than 100 meetings were set up between Chinese officials and leaders from other countries. Therefore, the event can be described as a grand diplomatic ceremony. The recent controversy about the World Cup in Qatar and the demonstrations against the next competitions to be held in Rio de Janeiro show how sports and politics are closely interrelated. In the future, politicians from emerging countries will use international events as a diplomatic tool. As for civil society activists, they will take advantage of the large media coverage to get international attention and foster political change.

For more information: Qingmin, Z. (2012), “Sports Diplomacy: The Chinese Experience and Perspective”, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, n°8 (2013), pp. 211-233

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