Written by Jung Woo Lee.

The wave of the Olympic movement is prevailing in East Asia. The Winter Olympic cauldron has just been extinguished in Pyeongchang, and the five-ring flag has been handed over to Beijing where the next Winter Olympic Games will take place in 2022. Before this, Tokyo will stage the 2020 Summer Olympics.

It is by no means coincidental that the International Olympic Committee awarded the right to host the three consecutive sporting spectacles to the East Asian cities at this historical juncture. Such a phenomenon is indicative of the rise of South Korea, Japan and China in the global politics and economy. At the same time, this is demonstrative of increasing rivalries amongst the three nations. Indeed, it is a competition for displaying their ability to stage the premier sporting event to international audiences. By hosting these global athletic festivals, the East Asian trio are trying to show off their sporting and cultural excellence.

The 2022 Winter Olympics will take place in Beijing. This makes the Chinese capital the first city ever to host both winter and summer events. This sets a unique Olympic record but such a status may not be a badge of honour.

The Olympic Games leave recognisable marks in the host cities. Above all, it is politics. The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang facilitated dialogue between North and South Korea. North Korea clearly showed its willingness to improve relations with its southern sibling during the event. South Korea received these overtures from the North positively. The two sides have restored a diplomatic channel after almost a two-year hiatus and have agreed to hold further bilateral talks. It is still unclear whether the post-Olympic inter-Korean dialogues will lead to a more significant political breakthrough. Nevertheless, it is certainly constructive to keep a communication line that connects North and South Korea because this implies the possibility of easing the current military and political tensions diplomatically.

A sporting legacy is less optimistic. It is all about the sustainability of the expensive Winter Olympic facilities. The most notable examples include the bobsleigh track and ski jumping hills in Pyeongchang. No Korean public authorities have a clear plan to use and maintain these winter sport facilities after the competition. Additionally, the local government issued a huge amount of municipal bonds to finance the construction of the Olympic stadiums. This means that taxpayers will have to pay the debts back in the coming years. The memory of the sporting extravaganza is still fresh in the mind of the citizens of Pyeongchang. Yet, when the snow and ice melts, they will face the harsh reality of hosting a costly sporting spectacle in their hometown.

Tokyo will host the next Summer Olympics. Japan’s ambiguous attitude towards its hostile imperialism in the past makes neighbouring countries feel uncomfortable. Indeed, history still matters in East Asian geopolitics. It is difficult to predict how Tokyo 2020 will unfold. Yet, the opening ceremony conventionally includes a performance that represents the historical narrative of the host nations. It is likely that Japan will dramatise its long history on the Olympic stage. Displaying the legacy of its colonialism and the aftermath of the Second World War without remorse will cause controversy, upsetting former Japanese colonies in East Asia, particularly Korea and China.

If the rapprochement between North and South Korea continues, there is a strong chance that the two sides will make a sporting union again at Tokyo 2020. In the Summer Olympics, there are more sporting events wherein the two Koreas can field a unified Korean team, such as table tennis, basketball and football. While Koreans will celebrate  unity in the Olympic stadium, Japan may only reluctantly welcome the unified Korean athletes. Certainly, North Korea posed a threat recently by testing long-range missiles over Japan. The horrific memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki renders people in Japan particularly sensitive to potential missile attacks. Understandably, Japan has to be suspicious of communist Korea’s peaceful gesture at the Olympic Games.

The 2022 Winter Olympics will take place in Beijing. This makes the Chinese capital the first city ever to host both winter and summer events. This sets a unique Olympic record but such a status may not be a badge of honour. In fact, Krakow, Munich, St. Moritz, and Oslo also intended to stage the 2022 Games. However, they withdrew their bids as the their citizens campaigned against hosting the event because of the high environmental cost. Beijing is certainly not a conventional winter sport venue. Indeed, skiing and snowboarding events will be held 140 miles away from the capital. Due to the rarity of naturally occurring snow in this area, the host nation will need to use artificial snow machines on a large scale. It seems that China does not mind leaving a carbon footprint in order to deliver the seventeen-day extravaganza of snow and ice sports.

Recently, China has become more ambitious economically and militarily and President Xi Jinping desires to be the most dominant figure in modern China. Diplomatically, the ruling elites are eager to boast of the power of their nation. Domestically, they need to stimulate nationalistic emotion to boost people’s loyalty to the state. No other projects fulfil these dual roles better than hosting the Olympic Games. Major international sporting events have always been entangled with politics but the next Winter Olympics in Beijing will be potentially the most politicised games ever.

Jung Woo Lee is Lecturer in Sport and Leisure Policy at the University of Edinburgh. He is also the founding member of the Edinburgh Critical Studies in research group. He recently published (with two co-editors) an edited volume of Routledge Handbook of Sport and Politics. Image credit: CC by IOC Media/Flickr.

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