Olympics in Asia: Are the Games becoming truly global?

The 2018 Winter Olympics marks the sixth time the Asian continent has hosted the Games.

Felipe Dana/AP
A volunteer walks past a large banner at the Gangneung Olympic Park prior to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, on Feb. 5, 2018.

Say the words Winter Olympics and Russian figure skaters, Austrian downhill skiers, and Canadian hockey players come to mind. But the next two Winter Games won’t be found on snowy slopes in Europe or North America.

In fact, Asia will be hosting the next three Games – Pyeongchang, South Korea (Winter Games 2018); Tokyo (Summer Games 2020); and Beijing (Winter Games 2022) – marking a new chapter in Olympic history.

How many times have the Olympics been held in Asia?

Three Asian countries will have played host to a total of six Olympics Games, beginning with Japan in 1964 (Summer Games in Tokyo) just 19 years after the nation’s horrific defeat in World War II. To the world’s surprise, Tokyo presented an impressive event that showcased its postwar recovery, paving the way for four additional Asian Games: 1972 (Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan); 1988 (Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea); 1998 (Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan); 2008 (Summer Olympics in Beijing); and 2018 (Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang).

Why are the next three Olympics in Asia?

Asia – with its large population and increasingly sophisticated technology – provides the International Olympics Committee (IOC) with enticing new opportunities, according to Christopher Finlay, assistant professor of communication studies at Loyola Marymount University.

“[For the IOC], audience is their currency. Approximately half of their revenue comes from sponsorship deals, and the rest from broadcasting rights  – and both are dependent on eyeballs,” said Mr. Finlay. “The IOC’s recent connection with Alibaba [an e-commerce and technology conglomerate] in China [shows] that they’re looking for strategic partnerships in Asia to build their global brand.”

In conjunction with the advantages of technology and audience engagement, the IOC’s push toward Asia is a result of dwindling interest in Europe and other corners of the world that traditionally generated a large following for the Games.

“I think the Olympics are struggling a bit [as] you see an aging audience in North America and Western Europe, and an uptick in interest in Asia that came out of the 2008 Beijing Olympics in particular,” says Finlay.

In fact, China is working to weave winter sports into its tourism culture and has announced plans to build hundreds of new ski resorts and ice hockey rinks by 2022.

“The future of the Olympics is only going to work if it becomes more global in scope,” says Finlay. “It’s always presented as a world event, but it has [been] a Eurocentric paradigm.”

Despite hosting in foreign countries and welcoming athletes from all over the world, the Olympics are, at their core, European, says Finlay. Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, and run mostly by Europeans, the Olympics are struggling to become global in practice. Even the classification of what is considered an elite sport – such as downhill skiing – is held to European standards, he says.

What will the host cities seek to get out of the Olympics?

The Olympics provides host cities with an immense platform of opportunities, and each city will be taking advantage of this fact to address their unique needs, Asia experts say.

“I think that South Korea, Japan, and China will each in their own way seek to showcase their dynamism and important role regionally and globally,” says Ryan Hass, Rubenstein Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “They want to be seen as important countries in the international system, and the Olympics provides the opportunity to do so.”

South Korea and Japan will use the Olympics as an opportunity to project outward to try and attract tourism and direct investments at the domestic level, according to Finlay. And both countries will seek to better their infrastructure and boost patriotism. In South Korea particularly – a country that has won the most medals for short track speed skating – the Olympics will be used to continue perpetuating national pride. There is a particular significance attached to the Olympics in South Korea, tied to many Koreans’ ethnic identity and belief that they are part of a “pure” bloodline.

China, too, uses the Olympics to send the message that it is a strong and modern global player. But its political system also capitalizes on the Games to provide its dominance to its domestic audience.

“[T]hey don’t care so much what the rest of the world thinks about them,” says David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian and co-founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Beijing wanted to be able to say to their people, ‘We got 55 world leaders to come and sit in the stadium, we brought you the most gold medals, trust us in everything.’ ”

How are the 2018 Winter Games navigating tensions on the Korean Peninsula?

The overwhelming story surrounding the upcoming Pyeongchang Games is the participation of delegates from North Korea, after months of escalating tensions due to Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear and missile testing.

Athletes from North and South Korea will play on a joint women’s ice hockey team and march together beneath a unified flag in the opening ceremonies. This isn’t the first time the Asian neighbors have joined together under the five Olympic rings: They marched together in 2000 (Summer Games in Sydney, Australia), 2004 (Summer Games in Athens), and 2006 (Winter Games in Turin, Italy). But the increasing risk of Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities adds particular resonance to this year’s symbols of unity, according to Mr. Wallechinsky. The historian points to the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, for another example of peaceful diplomacy. The IOC convinced West and East Germany to enter as a combined team, leading former IOC president Avery Bundage to declare the act as “a victory for sports over politics.”

However, despite North Korea’s agreement to join its delegates with South Korea, thereby temporarily lowering tensions on the Korean Peninsula, a notable degree of cynicism remains around Pyeongchang. Athletes and younger constituents in South Korea have pushed back against the displays of unity as mere political propaganda.

“The Olympics are all about the spectacle of nationalism for the host country. In South Korea, public opinion polls [are] turned off by a sporting event turning into a diplomatic event,” says Finlay. “It’s [viewed] as throwing athletes under the bus. The diplomatic coup may have the impact of dampening nationalist enthusiasm [and Korean patriotism] in South Korea.”

But Hass says the two estranged countries should get the benefit of the doubt.

“There are a lot of theories for what North Korea is seeking to accomplish in its participation, but we don’t know yet the motivations are,” he says. Until then, “we should avoid drawing conclusions that drive us in the direction of either condemning or questioning the utility of this joint participation.”

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