Winter Olympics 2018: The power of sport

January 24, 2018 13:22
South Korean President Moon Jae-in signs an autograph on a ice hockey stick during a visit to the country's ice hockey team. Photo: Reuters

North and South Korea have recently shaken hands on a diplomatic solution that will see the former's athletes participating in this year's Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. Instead of being a mega-event staged against the backdrop of concerns about a nuclear holocaust, we should, therefore, be able to enjoy it knowing that the power of sport for good has won through once again.

One hopes someone tells Donald Trump this; although his nuclear button may or may not be bigger than that of Kim Jong-un, for the duration of the Olympics he can move his finger away from it and concentrate on sporting matters. That said, recent research has indicated that sports mega-events can fuel nationalist sentiment and military action, as Russia's hosting of the 2014 event perhaps proved.

Whatever the geopolitical shenanigans that might transpire, the Winter Games is still beset by problems. Arguably the most worrying thing is that, due to climate change, some observers are speculating the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is quickly running out of options for venues equipped to host the competition, a problem that European nations are compounding. Over the last few years, Germany, Norway and Poland have held referendums on bidding to host the Winter Olympics. Local populations all rejected the chance.

The reluctance of an increasing number of nations to bid for the Winter Games is unsurprising. The world’s sports mega-events have become an increasingly expensive proposition, which many countries are unprepared to commit to. The 2014 Games in Sochi set the bar high, the US$51 billion budget made it the most expensive Olympics in history. South Korea’s spending (US$13 billion), although significantly lower, won’t do anything to assuage western concerns the Olympics are a cost game best played elsewhere.

The importance of concerns about the stand-off between the Koreas was therefore as much a result of the Olympics’ shift eastwards as it was anything else. Following Sochi’s Black Sea hosting of the event, it heads next to Beijing – hardly a city one normally associates with skiing, bobsleighing or thriftiness. Already, China has allocated a budget of US$9 billion just to construct a high-speed rail link to the mountains, let alone fund the development of venues. It is no surprise that the traditional industrial heartlands of winter sports events are losing their appetite for them, yet it remains to be seen how sustainable the appetite of Asian nations is for this form of sport.

What the nouveau riche nations of Asia will get for their money is open to debate. Even at the best of times, the Winter Olympics event does not seem to have the same appeal as the summer Olympics or football’s World Cup. Ask yourself the question: what are the names of some of the highest profile athletes who will be competing in South Korea? Unlike their summer counterpart, the Winter Games does not have the equivalent of a Usain Bolt to grab people’s attention and keep the IOC’s cash tills ringing.

Indeed, one wonders how relevant to most people the event is. In attempts to account for the needs of a changing market, new sports such as snowboarding have been incorporated into the Games. However, since 2014, we have seen the rise of millennial consumers, while the social and digital environment has changed dramatically. All eyes will be the Olympic Channel, launched in 2016, to ensure one of the IOC’s most important properties remains fit-for-purpose and commercially viable.

Recent doping scandals won’t have helped in building trust and engagement amongst members of the public, though the banning of Russia’s Olympic team from participating in Pyeongchang should help. Nevertheless, there remain trust and integrity issues for the Olympics to contend with, exacerbated by the IOC’s apparent concessions to Russia notably in allowing its 'clean' squad members to compete under the banner of ‘Olympic Athlete from Russia’.

The banning of Russia from the Winter Games is the result of an investigation by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which follows-on from a ban previously imposed at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in the summer of 2016. In the aftermath of that event, a hacking group called the Fancy Bears, believed to be of Russian origin and with close links to state entities, revealed files implicating several high-profile athletes from across the world in drugs scandals. This included the likes of British Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins.

Given the bullish noises coming out of Russian government, where once the world might have seen North Korea and its nuclear ambitions as the biggest threat to the upcoming Games, cyber-attacks from groups such as the Fancy Bears now appear much more likely during the event. If not from Russia, then hacking from elsewhere may be set to disrupt the Winter Games. Before the world gets too emotional about the Koreas’ reconciliation, hacking of the Winter Olympics by "a nation-state adversary that speaks Korean" has already been identified by McAfee.

Pundits, more specifically analytics experts, are already publicizing their lists of which countries will secure the most medals. Clearly, it won’t be Russia, which will be a blow to Vladimir Putin and the image of Russia he is seeking to cultivate (especially as he is an avid ice-hockey fan). However, in the first global sports mega-event, since the United States elected Donald Trump president, several countries will be looking to make a big impact at the Games.

Trump's 'make America great again' agenda will demand a strong US performance, while China’s increasingly powerful President Xi will likewise be looking for his country’s athletes to flex their collective muscles in supporting his pursuit of 'making China great again'. Even Great Britain, whose government has adopted the moniker of 'Sport is Great' has set its athletes a target of winning an unprecedented five medals.

The Olympics and the World Cup (which we can look forward to later this year), have often been rather contentious affairs. Indeed, South Korea’s last hosting of the Olympics (in summer 1988) is believed by many to have been a move designed to legitimize an authoritarian regime. This February, however, promises to be much more intriguing than even that.

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Members of North and South Korea delegations shake hands during a meeting where the two sides discussed Pyongyang's participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Photo: Reuters
Unification flags hang on a military fence near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea. Photo: Reuters
Chinese citizens celebrate after Beijing was chosen to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Photo: Reuters

Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester in the UK, where he is Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Senior Fellow of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.