IN the year of the Olympics, the world is once more reminded of the link between sports and international affairs.
Observers of the recent referendum in South Africa - in which the white electorate gave President Frederik W. de Klerk his mandate for change - comment on the role of sports in the president's victory. At that time South Africa's cricket team was, on the first occasion in many years, playing in international competition. Fear of renewed sports isolation in the absence of reform may well have influenced many voters.
The South African example is but one of many marking the role that sports play in international relations. Athletic competition provides a powerful symbol of tradition, national power, and national pride. Many countries, including some of the world's poorest, have spent huge sums on regional games and sports complexes as evidence of national prestige. Recent revelations of the facilities for the preparation of athletes in the former German Democratic Republic demonstrate the degree to which the communist
states of the East saw the importance of this symbol. The feeling of humiliation experienced by the former Soviet athletes competing under the neutered title of "Unified Team" has been used as an argument by those opposing reform in Russia.
The tie between sports and nationalism is also evident in the United States. The pervasive American spirit of competition is reflected in attitudes toward international crises; e.g., who is winning, Iraq or Iran? In the Olympics, where the intention is to focus on the achievement of individual athletes, Americans look at how many gold medals their nation has won.
Sports most recently has intruded into the delicate relations between Japan and the US. Baseball fans throughout the country (except in Seattle) reacted with outrage at the news that a Japanese investor might buy the Seattle Mariners baseball team. Meanwhile, Japan is agonizing over the fact that an outsider, Salevaa Atisnoe of Hawaii, has for the third year in a row taken the Emperor's Cup in sumo wrestling and has a claim to a title previously held only by Japanese. The emotions over sports can, in som e instances, exceed those over trade.
In an ideal world, politics might play no role in sports. In the real world, international competition is intricately linked to politics. In the most extreme cases - in the countries of the former Soviet bloc - substantial money and effort were expended to insure victory for the "socialist" teams. The world boycott of South African sports teams was one of the several powerful instruments that stimulated support for reform against apartheid in that country. The refusal of one set of nations to meet teams from another brings the isolation and rejection vividly to public attention.
But, in the absence of genuine progress at the political level, sports alone cannot pave the way for better relations between nations. It would take more than a game between a Cuban nine and the New York Yankees to improve US relations with Havana. The Middle East peace process will have to make much progress before an Israeli soccer team plays in Damascus.
Sports competition, however, can be the first symbolic step in the process of improvement. The visit of an American ping pong team to China in March 1971 was one of the first indications of a thaw in relations between the US and the People's Republic of China.
In this Olympic year, the games in Barcelona will mark in several ways the changes in the international political scene. The athletes of the former Eastern bloc will still be seeking their respective national identities. And who knows what athletes from war-torn Yugoslavia will be present and under what flags? But in other cases, such as the recent decision of the two Koreas to compete under one flag, the games will be a hopeful sign of improved relations in one tense area of the world. South Africa will
be competing for the first time in many years.
Sports competition can, perhaps, build respect and camaraderie among athletes, but it can't work miracles in relations among nations. Where the doors between enemies are waiting for a push, however, the powerful emotion of sport can provide a necessary nudge.