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Olympic Movement as a soft power in Diplomacy

Sport Diplomacy
Dear young participants in this year’s Session of the International Olympic Academy for young people from all over the world,
On the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the Opening of the Winter Olympic Games PyeongChang, on the 7th of last February, the IOC President, Dr Thomas Bach stated during his warm message:
The Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 were a success story in so many respects. From the sporting achievements and the athletes’ experience to the excellent organisation, these Games opened up new horizons in more ways than anyone could have imagined. The best expression of this was the joint march of the athletes of the National Olympic Committees of the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at the Opening Ceremony. They entered the Olympic Stadium as one team, united behind one flag, the Korean unification flag. With these powerful symbols in PyeongChang, we saw how the Olympic Games can open the way to dialogue, how the Olympic values can open the way to a more peaceful future. It is our hope that this door to a more peaceful future on the Korean Peninsula will remain open. Sport must continue to build bridges and show what it can do to bring people together. The IOC is committed to continuing to support the ongoing political peace talks on the Korean Peninsula through sport.
The IOC President used the example of PyeongChang to showcase the contribution of the Olympic Movement, through its most characteristic expression, the Olympic Games, to the peaceful settlement of political and ideological disputes, with the aim to preserve peace.
At the same time, however, Bach used it as an example of the Olympic Movement’s ability to operate as a kind of international law, which contributes to the promotion of world peace and development, a universal, global implementation of rules of sports competition, compared to other rules that regulate the operation of each society separately. Indeed, in his effort to support his position concerning the autonomy of the sports movement, he underscored that, if we permit governments to determine their own rules in sports, such as football or other sports, this would mean “the end of international sports”. As he stated at his speech at the Opening of the Asian Games in 2014 in Incheon, underscoring the real role of sports in daily life: “... “So we need this worldwide application of our rules to ensure also in the future that sport remains this international phenomenon – which only sport can offer”.
The recommencing of South and North Korea peace talks is the latest episode in a series of diplomatic actions undertaken by the Olympic Movement on the international stage, which over time has proven the soft power of Olympism, contributing successfully to resolving political disputes.
How do we perceive the term soft power?
According to Håvard Mokleiv Nygård of the Peace Research Institute Oslo1, whose approach to the matter I consider to be exceptional: “Soft Power” is the power to persuade whereby one actor in a noncoercive manner convinces another to want the same things he/she wants. Sport can be used as tool of soft power both internationally and domestically. Peacebuilding and nation-building can be achieved through four mechanisms of sport diplomacy and politics: image-building; building a platform for dialogue; trust building; and reconciliation, integration and anti-racism. These mechanisms are not deterministically controllable and can have unintended consequences. On the one hand, sporting events can be used as a means of building trust between adversaries.


The Olympic Movement has forged its own strong profile – a result of the path it has taken over many years, as well as its roots. It comprises, as is known, the most recognisable brand worldwide.
A country hosting major sports events signals the special presence of that country on the international sports stage and that country is the focus of the world’s attention for many days. The governments of those countries use the event as a means to mobilise economic forces and human resources in a very short period of time, which under normal conditions would be almost impossible. This is a strong example of using the soft power of sports, inside the country and abroad. We refer to this mechanism as image-building by investing in political capital.

Building a platform for dialogue

As has been proven by a series of events in the past, sport is able to create the appropriate platform, which helps sustain and develop actions capable of surmounting obstacles, often created by dogmatic stereotypes.
In 1986 the first Goodwill Games in Moscow between the USA and USSR reopened a broad channel to re-establish formal relations between the two countries. Similarly, Ping-Pong diplomacy formed the basis for the opening of relations between China and the USA. In general, sporting events, from the World Cup and Olympic Games to a simple friendly match, strengthen ties between nations and people, and provide a venue for peaceful cultural exchange, which can serve as the basis for further normalization of political relations. We refer to this mechanism as building a platform for dialogue. Here we should point out that hosting a sporting event can involve two different (but related) mechanisms. The central idea behind using sport as a platform for dialogue is distinct from image-building. One entails self-promotion (image-building), while the other (creating a platform for dialogue) features the promotion of a relationship. Hosting in and of itself is not the mechanism –indeed, it does not imply causality and it is observable. The construction of the basis for dialogue is unobservable, but with real consequences.


Moving ever more micro, sport can be used to build trust, and through trustbuilding build peace. In order to do so, a specific sporting event, by being staged on a repetitive basis, should act as a locus of trust between participants enabling obstacles to be set aside, which would be impossible otherwise. Besides the Olympic Games, where teams and delegations co-exist in the same residential space such as the Olympic village, offering a safe environment for the cross-cultural exchange of ideas, individual sporting events can also act as platforms of safety and mutual trust. For example, each year Norway hosts the Norwegian Cup, an international youth soccer cup, which brings together teams from all over the world, including teams from the third world. During the 1997 Norwegian cup, a team of Palestinians played for the first time against an Israeli team. The main idea behind organising such a tournament is to encourage personal interaction, which can foster understanding and friendships. Through this bottom-up approach, peace is secured through the interaction of persons from different societies, cultures and religions.

Reconciliation, integration and anti-racism

The fourth mechanism is used when sport is used to build peace within a country through reconciliation, integration and anti-racism. Sport is a cultural institution that stands at the interface between political and civil society. In divided communities, sport has been an agent of separation, sectarian hatred and violence, but also a highly effective tool for conflict resolution, reconciliation and peace-building. In South Africa, rugby, strongly associated with the white ruling class, was seen as a symbol of apartheid. In this case, Mandela’s objective in hosting the Rugby World Cup was primarily to foster reconciliation and integration between South Africans. Similarly, very recently, the IOC policy which created a separate team, in which political migrants from various countries participated, constitutes an initiative with great importance in the peacebuilding effort.

Dear friends,

By looking back in time, we can see that although many people spoke out against the relationship between the Olympic Movement and politics, this has always existed since antiquity and up to the present day. Usually, various researchers focus on the negative side of this relationship, i.e. whereby politics intervene in the Olympic Movement taking advantage of sports for their own benefit, both in domestic affairs, as well as on the international political stage. At times provocative actions of a political or ideological nature have marked the Olympic Games. Although the most striking may well be the propaganda-rife Berlin Olympiad in 1936, the events in Munich in 1972 and the great boycotts of the Moscow and LA Olympics, nevertheless the nineteen sixties, seventies and eighties were full of interventions, both small and large, that prove the effort made by politics to exploit the Olympic Games.
At the beginning of the 20th century and after the Coubertin era and his romantic approach to amateur sports, sports appeared as a “social conquest” of the industrial age. Until that point it had depended on private initiative and the so-called “upper class”, with its fixation on amateurism, without the presence of women and the participation of nationalistic minorities, it comprised, as we presently analyse it, a game for the “few”. In this form the Olympic Movement was not really of concern to politics besides its opportunistic exploitation on a limited level. Few people believed that it could play a serious role on an international level, even though its strength had started being tested domestically in many states.
The interwar period was particularly important in the development of sports and politics, mainly through an increasing number of international sports meetings and the interest that the middle class started showing in that period. The simplistic exploitation of the internationalised sports phenomenon, which had prevailed until that time, became a tool in the hands of totalitarian regimes. Even democratic regimes were involved, in an effort to balance the ideologically opposing political trends. The emergence of the new countries, mainly from Africa, with exceptionally skilled athletes, was yet another factor in
a new climate forging the relationship of sports and politics.
It was now certain that sports could be used both internationally and nationally to promote national unity and identity. In the ever-changing world stage of the last decades, there was an increasing awareness of the political importance of sports, which resulted in its use as a political tool by a large number of countries up until the end of the nineteen eighties.
Nobody now contests the fact that the Olympic Movement, however much it tried to stay away from politics, was minimally successful at it. However, it is important to note that in this respect, theoreticians and experts expressed opposing views. One side desperately insisted on the complete separation of politics from sports, headed by Avery Brundage, IOC President from 1952 to 1972, who throughout his involvement in sporting developments was a passionate champion of this theory. This extreme view was considered unrealistic and conflicting with reality, as already from the outset of the Olympic Movement, politics played an important role in its evolution.
On the other hand, already from the era of J. A. Samaranch, the involvement of politics in sports and vice versa, sometimes positive and sometimes negative, had been fully recognised and we have reached the point today where it is “imposed” in a certain manner by the new IOC leadership, as a necessary precondition for co-existence in a world full of inequality. This opinion was straightforwardly expressed by the incumbent IOC President T. Bach in one of his recent speeches2.
M. P. Cottrell and T. Nelson3 explain the above attempts to intervene in Olympic developments, as follows:
…the relationship between sport and international politics is not a simple one and many paradoxes lie at the heart of this relationship. The Olympics represent one of the most heated and intense forms of international competition, but they are also used as a symbol to promote peace. Olympic sport strives to be apolitical, yet is
consistently politicized. The Olympics are designed around and orchestrated according to a state-based international system, yet activist groups and institutions such as the IOC can exercise unusual power at these events. It is precisely these paradoxes that make the Olympics so much more than a sporting event, but an important political, social, economic, and cultural phenomenon.
The Olympic Movement, having thrown off the constrictions imposed by political expedience, does not seek to play a transcendental and decisive role on the international political stage. It simply has the ability now to impose its own independence, by establishing its own autonomy and the relationship has
gradually been reversed. It seems the Olympic Movement has acquired the dynamics it has sought since its inception, to gradually become a respected soft power in the realm of international politics.
This new direction of the Olympic Movement brought it to threshold of the United Nations, where its soft power was recognised.
As Professor Stephan Wassong notes4:

…for the first time in the history, in the Olympic Congress in Copenhagen (2009), the Olympic Movement, put a strong focus on the relationship of the IOC with the UN. In his opening address, Jacques Rogge, pointed out that the world had become more complex and globalized and that the IOC was not able to solve all problems on its own but was obliged to set up strong partnerships: “We can’t change the world on our own, but we can and we do help make it a better world.” Jacques Rogge said. The evidence of the partnership with the UN can be seen in a symbolic way. The UN flag has been hoisted in the main stadium and the athletes’ village since the 1998 Nagano Olympic Winter Games. Since the 1980s cooperation agreements between UN bodies (including UNESCO, UNICEF, UNEP and UN Habitat) and Olympic organisations have been signed and the Olympic Movement agreed on the IOC’s commitment to the UN “Millennium Goals”.
In October 2009, the IOC was granted UN observer status and in May 2010 the first UN forum was held in Lausanne on combating terrorism. After Rogge’s opening address at the Olympic Congress in Copenhagen, the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addressed the participants and underscored the power of sports as a vehicle for global humanitarian aid and hope: Sport can be found anywhere in the world. I have travelled to countries mired in poverty. The communities struggled to survive.
To war-ravaged places where all hope seems lost. Suddenly, a ball appears, made out of plastic bags or newspapers. And we see sport gives life to hopes and dreams. In his speech, Ban Ki-moon referred to his special adviser on Sport forDevelopment and Peace, Wilfried Lemke. In his view, sports is a universal language that unites people and builds bridges. The key responsibility of Lemke is to “promote sports as an instrument for development and peace.
The UN’s position on Olympic Peace, both within the UN and outside of it, is to encourage the creation of partnerships in this sector”. Ban Ki-moon stated that the UN attached great importance to the initiatives of the International Olympic Committee for Peace, which he considered an outstanding example in the effort of striving for the Olympic peace idea. It is true that despite the successive interventions of politics in sports, already, since the middle of the previous century, the Olympic Movement had shown what a positive role it could play in political affairs, when in a set of realistic actions by the IOC addressed to Governments and National Olympic Committees, light was shed on a different side of the Olympic Movement.
In no few cases the intervention of the IOC in political developments was considered to be positive and effective, placing the Institution in a critical but also key position of a dominant player on the international political stage.
The following cases constitute characteristic examples of a positive intervention of the Olympic Movement in outstanding political conflicts:
(1) Recognition of the Olympic Committee of East Germany before the latter was recognised as an independent political entity by the UN. This act of the IOC most certainly led to the faster political recognition of GDR by the United Nations.
(2) The IOC’s intervention in the political rivalry between China and Taiwan was also positive, adopting a practical solution, beneficial for both countries, keeping both Olympic Committees on the Olympic Charter, accepting the latter as Chinese Taipei.
(3) The IOC’s position in the case of North and South Korea at the end of the eighties with the Seoul Olympic Games (1980) was also instrumental. The IOC, under the President Juan Antonio Samaranch, was unable to bring about a diplomatic rapprochement of the two Countries, but managed in spite of unfavourable conditions to impose the Principles of the Olympic Movement in sports practice and indirectly to contribute to the general change in the social and political conditions in South Korea.
(4) Amongst the most important positive instances of mixing politics and sports was the so-called “ping-pong diplomacy” between China and the USA. It was perhaps the most characteristic case of sports being used as a vehicle for building relations between states with a major international impact. In 1971 the US table tennis team formally requested to be invited to China for a series of friendly matches. This sporting event paved the way for Nixon’s visit to China and the eventual normalisation of relations between the USA and China. Sport diplomacy in this case served as a means of peacebuilding between superpowers.
(5) In the case of South Africa, with its exclusion from the Olympic Games for twenty years, the Olympic Movement flexed its muscle as a soft power in human rights protection. It was the first time where the implementation of the Principles of the Charter by a National Olympic Committee was the subject of many debates and was finally imposed in an absolutist manner.
(6) The recent recognition of Kosovo by the Olympic Committee, although Kosovo has not yet been recognised as an independent political entity by the UN, shows that the Olympic Movement follows its own course of absolute independence, which helps promote political positions based on their sports standing, imposing its own rules, which are respected by all member states.
(7) The most recent and important instance of diplomatic talks being resumed between South and North Korea is an outstanding example of the efficacy of the Olympic Movement in the cause of international peace.
(8) And, finally, as I underscored above, the IOC’s decision to foster solidarity towards political refugees, with the participation of a separate team in the Olympic Games under its flag, is clear proof of the Olympic Movement’s potential to constitute once more a key soft power in international developments.
IOC President, Dr Thomas Bach, in addressing the UN General Assembly in New York in November 2013, underscored the need for autonomy in the structure and operation of sports:
…Sport [is] truly the only area of human existence which has achieved universal law.[…] Politics must respect this sporting autonomy [...] The excellent relations between the UN and the IOC can in this respect serve as an example for relations on the national level between National Olympic Committees and national governments. This relationship with governments requires that sport always remains politically neutral 5.
1. Håvard Mokleiv Nygård: “Soft power at home and abroad: Sport diplomacy, politics and peace-building” (2013) – International Area Studies Review.
2. Speech by the IOC President at the opening ceremony of the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea (24/09/2014)
3. M. Patrick Cottrell and Travis Nelson: “Not just the Games? Power protest and politics at the Olympics” – European Journal of International Relations, 2011, 17 (
4. Stephan Wassong: The UN attitude to Olympic Peace, (2010) Rethinking Matters Olympic: Investigations into the Socio-Cultural Study of the Modern Olympic Movement Tenth International Symposium for Olympic Research.

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Olympic Movement as a soft power in Diplomacy
Dr Dionyssis Gangas
IOA Senior Advisor
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