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Winning at Sports-Diplomacy at the PyeongChang Olympics

The 2018 Winter Olympics may be only half over, but it is not too early to award medals in one of the most important...

​events of the PyeongChang Games: sports-diplomacy. Sports-diplomacy matters because international sporting competition is a venue for reducing political and military tensions and for building understanding between nations and peoples. Two types of diplomacy take place at major sporting events like the Olympics. Governments use competitions as opportunities for leaders to meet their counterparts in a favourable environment in which fans and spectators are already drawn together by love of the games. And whenever individuals and teams compete, 'sport-as-diplomacy' takes place: the people-to-people diplomacy of sharing common sporting ideals of excellence and fair play. Yet sports-diplomacy offers no guarantee of success: failed attempts have exacerbated national rivalries rather than bridging differences. Sports-diplomacy, like other competitions, has winners and losers. So who has already won a sports-diplomacy medal at PyeongChange? On the medal stand:

By Geoff Pigman

Gold: to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, with the support of his government and national Olympic organizing committee, for staging an Olympics that has charmed and delighted participants and global spectators, showcasing the Republic of Korea as a welcoming, modern, efficient, stylish, culturally rich society. In addition to this public diplomacy '10', Moon framed the PyeongChang Olympics as the 'Peace Games'. To back that up, he took the bold step of inviting North Korea not only to participate but to march together with South Korean competitors in the Opening Ceremony under a unified 'Korea' flag. Taking a considerable risk given the current deadlock over North Korea's nuclear weapons programme, Moon invited global spectators to imagine a different, united Korea. The unified Korean women's hockey team has already scored a win merely by training together, competing together and sharing their dedication to their sport.

Silver: to the International Olympic Committee and its head Thomas Bach, for dealing with the Russian doping crisis in a way that upholds fair competition and penalizes perpetrators of institutionalized cheating. By banning Russia from the PyeongChang Games but permitting Russian competitors who tested clean of performance-enhancing substances to participate, the IOC sent the signal to the world that fair competition can prevail even in the face of corrupt national sporting institutions. Allowing Russian competitors to compete under the Olympic flag as 'Olympic Athletes from Russia' signals to the world that fair competitors, not nations and flags, are what make the Olympic movement.

Bronze: to the leadership of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, for using South Korea's invitation to participate to present a different, more human face from that seen in the ongoing war of words between North Korean President Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump. Kim sent his sister Kim Yo Jong and ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam to attend the Opening Ceremony, where Kim Yo Jong's poise and grace (and lack of political speech) impressed audiences. North Korean pairs figure skaters and ice hockey players have shown the world they too aspire to the shared values of excellence in sporting competition. North Korea's invitation to President Moon to visit Pyongyang after the Olympics may not bear fruit, but it has opened a new potential road to avoiding nuclear catastrophe.

Not on the podium: US Vice President Mike Pence, who disrespected his South Korean hosts and the ideals of the Olympic movement by refusing to stand along with other invited dignitaries for the entrance of the Korean competitors during the Opening Ceremony. Observing diplomatic protocol, the 'manners' of diplomacy, does not hamper global resolve to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear-armed state. Rather, it is a key component of the oil that lubricates the machinery of diplomatic negotiation. Not standing with his South Korean hosts not only made the Vice President and his spouse look bad, it cast shade upon the United States on an occasion when the eyes of much of the world were watching.

Photo Courtesy of Peter Burgess

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