North Korea’s last-minute participation in the winter games, which followed a period of heightened tension on the peninsula, has received a mixed response, with some welcoming the unexpected thaw in relations between the two countries and others expressing doubts about whether this public display of unity through sport will yield any lasting results.
The use of sports as a political tool is certainly nothing new, with many countries around the world employing similar tactics with varying degrees of success. Here are three other examples of sports diplomacy.
In 1971, at the height of the Cold War, the United States table tennis team were unexpectedly invited to visit the People’s Republic of China – the first time Americans had been invited to visit the country since 1949.
The event is thought to have been triggered by an encounter between American table tennis player Glenn Cowen and his Chinese counterpart Zhuang Zedong, according to BBC. At the 1971 world championships at Nagoya, Japan, Cowen missed his team bus after practice and was offered a ride on the Chinese team bus. Zhuang, a three-time world champion, approached the American player and gave him a silk portrait as a gift. The invitation was extended shortly after.
Dubbed “ping-pong diplomacy,” the incident has been credited with improving relations between the US and communist China. A year later, in 1972, US President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China and diplomatic ties were established in 1979.
1991 World Table Tennis Championships
North and South Korea’s use of sports as a diplomatic tool has not been limited to the Olympics. In 1991, the two estranged neighbours engaged in their own version of ping-pong diplomacy by sending a joint men’s and women’s table tennis teams to the world championships in Japan.
It was the first time that the Koreas had fielded a joint sports team since the Korean War, and the development quickly captured the world’s attention, with some speculating that it could be the beginning step to reunification.
The hype increased when the women’s team, comprising South Korean Hyun Jung-hwa and North Korea’s Li Bun-hui dethroned reigning champion China to clinch the gold. The sense of unity was short-lived however, with the two nations resuming their frosty relationship soon after.
India – Pakistan Cricket Diplomacy
Cricket has helped shape India – Pakistan ties for decades. In 1987, then Pakistan President General Ziaul Haq paid a surprise visit to India to watch a test match between India and Pakistan in Jaipur, according to Dawn. The visit helped establish peace, with President Ziaul Haq meeting Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for dinner, during which they agreed to reduce tension at the border by withdrawing 80,000 troops from each side.
Since then, the cricket pitch has repeatedly served as a convenient meeting point for politicians hoping to strengthen ties. Pakistani General Pervez Musharraf also travelled to India to watch a cricket match, paving the way for more dialogue and better ties between the two nations.
The sport also helped mend relations strained by the 2008 Mumbai attacks, when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited his Pakistani counterpart to watch a cricket match between the two countries in 2011.
More recently, however, the old approach of mixing cricket and politics has gone sour, with India refusing to play Pakistan in a bilateral series for security reasons.