Nation & World

Victor Cha looks at Olympic politics

3 min read

Behind the hoopla

Victor Cha, director of Asian affairs on the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007 and a former Olin National Security Fellow at Harvard, returned to campus last week (Feb. 14) to talk about the surprisingly forceful “soft power” of sport in the realm of international relations and diplomacy.

Cha, now serving as director of Asian studies at Georgetown University, also defended the Bush administration’s approach to North Korea as more successful, and less hawkish, than it gets credit for.

The Olympic Games have been particularly important in Asia, Cha said, for a number of reasons:

• They’ve rarely been held there.

• Unresolved historical animosities live on within Asia, as they no longer do in Europe. (Cha put it thus: “Everyone wants to beat Japan.”)

• The “pace of development” has been compacted in Asia — development that took centuries in the West has occurred within decades in Asia.

• Each Asian Summer Olympics so far has been connected to a particular historical turning point: The Tokyo Games of 1964 were a “coming-out” party for postwar Japan; the 1988 Seoul Olympics marked — arguably precipitated — South Korea’s transition to civilian democracy.

On a more mundane note, Cha explained why major plumbing upgrades were likely to be in Beijing’s future, with Korean help. South Korea hosted the World Cup in 2002. In advance of the competition, a toilet technology summit was held. The goal was to avoid scaring international visitors with Asian-style squat toilets and to make Korea the world leader in sanitation technology.

This, Cha suggested, will put South Korea in a good position to help the Chinese through a similar transition. He cited other instances where South Korea has benefited from similar openings provided by sporting events. During the Seoul Olympics, the Koreans “went out of their way to solicit the Soviets,” who in 1984 had boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics. Seoul’s overtures eventually paid off in normalization of diplomatic relations.

But earlier in the 1980s, South Korea had an opportunity to experience what Cha called the “catch-22” of illiberal regimes that seek to host international sporting events: Once they are awarded the Olympics, they find they really do have to embrace the liberal values of the Olympic ideal — or risk humiliation on the world stage.

“South Korea was the quintessential case of sport and political change,” Cha said. Seoul won the games in 1981. But during the military crackdown of the ensuing years, Cha said, “There was real concern about losing the Olympics.” New York, Berlin, and Los Angeles offered themselves as alternative sites if needed. The new leader, Roh Tae Woo, “personally internalized a lot of concerns about this catch-22,” Cha said, and took action. “The results we all know — the democratic transition of 1987.”

“Australia has parlayed sport into international prestige as no other country has done,” Cha said, calling it “a country that punches way above their weight — they take their sports very seriously.”

In 1993, Australia beat out China for the right to host the 2000 Summer Games.

“Ideationally, it was no contest.” The international business community was hoping that Summer Games in China would let them establish a foothold in the populous nation. “But in 1993 China was all about Tiananmen Square,” he said, referring to the 1989 massacre.

Cha’s talk was titled “Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport.” He spoke in the Tsai Auditorium. F. Ezra Vogel, Henry Ford II Research Professor of the Social Sciences, introduced him and moderated the discussion.