The Olympics: Politicized Games That Serve as a Civilizing Force


The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang this year provided a showcase for the recent thaw in relations between the two Koreas. Some complain about politicization of the Olympics, but the games cannot be divorced from politics; what is important is their positive effect as a civilizing force.

At this year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Japanese athletes took home 13 medals—4 gold, 5 silver, and 4 bronze—a new national best for the winter games. Japan is gearing up to host the Summer Olympics and Paralympics two years from now, and our media organs added heat to the nation’s Olympic fever with their coverage of the Pyeongchang events.

I confess that winter sports like skiing and skating hold little appeal for me, so what interested me more than the live coverage of the events was the news about related developments on the international political front, notably North Korea’s last-minute decision to take part. The slogan of the Pyeongchang Olympics—“Passion. Connected.”—turned out to be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, inasmuch as the games led to a historic North-South summit between the two Koreas. The modern Olympics are billed as a festival of peace, hearkening back to the sacred truce that was proclaimed during the Olympic games in ancient Greece, and it is evident that they continue to have a certain amount of political effectiveness even today.

Today’s Media-Centric Olympics

Most major sporting events, including the Olympics, are actually staged in order to generate media coverage. They are “pseudo-events,” to borrow a term from the American historian Daniel Boorstin, put on deliberately to serve as material for the press and broadcasters.

In terms of media theory, watching the Olympic events at the venues cannot be called more of a real experience than watching them on television. If anything, it is the opposite: Being in the stadium is rather like being a visitor to the set where a movie is being filmed. It allows one to feel the excitement directly, but it does not allow one to see the entire picture. By contrast, watching an Olympic event on TV at home is analogous to viewing a movie as a finished product in a theater. Theatergoers have a fuller experience of the movie than visitors to the set. Similarly, we can say that TV viewers have a more genuine Olympic experience than those who go to see the events in person. The games may be described as the “media Olympics.”

If we accept that the Olympics are media-centric, it is no surprise that ticket sales are poor and local hotels have empty rooms. There is currently a hotel construction boom underway in Tokyo in preparation for the 2020 games, but unless the media-focused character of the Olympics changes dramatically, we can only pray that excess accommodation capacity will not turn into a negative legacy. I might also note that Japan’s population is projected to plunge from the current 127 million to about 70 million as of 2070, and more than 40% of these people will be over 65. I wonder if the Tokyo 2020 organizers have a long-term plan for maintenance and operation of the New National Stadium and other grand facilities now being built for the upcoming games.

It would have been a good idea, I think, to pay more attention to Isozaki Arata, the architect who repeatedly argued that the media Olympics did not require a stadium. In a November 2014 press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Isozaki proposed holding the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies on the plaza in front of the Imperial Palace. The palace is on the site of Edo Castle, the former seat of the shogunate, and the backdrop for the ceremonies would be the great stone wall that remains from the castle. This open, urban-scale site, he argued, would be appropriate for today’s media age, with a billion people around the globe watching the event live— better than a closed stadium accommodating 100,000 spectators. It seems to me that this is the sort of approach we should have taken in planning for the games so as to leave a sustainable legacy for a country with a shrinking, aging population.

In any case, the age of the Olympics as a major customer-drawing card for local businesses is over. One clear indication of this is the fact that the sites of the 2024 and 2028 summer games—Paris and Los Angeles, respectively—were chosen with effectively no competition. One after another, rival cities had withdrawn from the running to host the Olympics after deciding that they could not bear the cost of all the new construction that would be required.

Plagiarism vs. Imitation: The Flap over the Olympic Emblem

Though the Olympics may no longer be much use as a customer draw for local enterprises, they continue to provide business for the advertising field of the media world. The emblems for the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics adopted in July 2015 became the source of a major flap and ultimately had to be replaced in the face of a wave of online allegations of plagiarism. This fracas was indeed “emblematic” of the place of the Olympics in the media.

From the viewpoint of media researchers, plagiarism and other violations of copyright are of course out of bounds, but imitation and sampling are not necessarily wrong. In his 1890 work Les Lois de l’imitation (The Laws of Imitation), French sociologist Gabriel Tarde argued that invention and imitation were not opposites but rather were separated by a paper-thin margin. Society is shaped by imitation, and human behavior that is not based on imitation, whether conscious or unconscious, is not a subject for sociological study.

In a book Kashima Takashi published last year presenting a historical analysis of the emblem plagiarism issue, he described the difference between design and art: Design appeals to use by clients and others; art leaves it up to critics and others to view works as they will. Next I will consider the Olympics not as sporting events to be viewed but as media events designed to be used as an outlet for nationalism.

A Festival of Nationalism in Imitation of War

Media coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics prominently displayed the games’ role as a festival of nationalism. Witness the high viewership ratings, peaking at 42.3%, for Japan’s live coverage of women’s curling, an event in which the Japanese team earned a bronze medal. It is unlikely that even one in a hundred Japanese understands the rules and tactics of curling, which has been described as “chess on ice,” but even so they tuned in and were able to taste the thrill of seeing Japan’s women performing strongly against their rivals. The high ratings are subject to various interpretations, but we should not ignore the nature of the matches as imitations of wars between nation states.

The modern Olympics in fact originated as a civilized imitation of war. Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee in 1894, the year when hostilities broke out between Japan and Qing-dynasty China, and the first modern games were staged in Athens two years later. The ancient Olympics are said to have their roots in the funeral games that Achilles staged after the death of his dear friend Patroclus during the Trojan War. Under the sacred Olympic truce that was proclaimed during the games, it was forbidden to attack the participants. Coubertin idealized this truce, aiming to make the modern games a festival of peace.

A truce is of course just a temporary cessation of hostilities; it does not entail the negation or absence of war. As a patriotic Frenchman, Coubertin himself cannot have been free from a sense of humiliation at his country’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71. And the modern Olympics, in which athletes compete not as individuals but as representatives of their countries, have from the start been seen as “war by other means.” The second Olympiad, held in Paris in 1900, coincided with the Boxer Rebellion in China. As the forces of an eight-nation alliance (Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United States) were conducting an all-out attack on Beijing, athletes from these countries were taking part in an elegantly staged pseudo-war in Paris. The events included ballooning, firefighting, tug of war, car racing, falconry, and even shooting of live pigeons—birds of the same family as doves, the symbol of peace,

The Politicized Olympics: Looking on the Positive Side

According to sociologist Norbert Elias, sports are a civilizing device created as a controlled outlet for emotionality that modern society requires us to keep under restraint. Combat sports in particular have gained popularity as events for the sublimation of the violent impulses that people are forbidden to express in ordinary life. The clothing and movements of athletes taking part in sporting matches are subject to precise rules; in this respect these formalized events may be compared to religious rituals. The controlled violence of sports is a symbol not of barbarity but of civilization.

Some of the vocabulary used in describing sporting events, including verbs like “beat,” “pummel,” and “thrash,” reflects the nature of sporting events as civilized forms of violence. And by natural extension, some of the terms, such as “victory,” “defeat,” and “rout,” are redolent of war. Sports may be seen as a means of averting real war by channeling the combative instinct of humans into games.

It is easy to complain that the Olympics have been “politicized” by being staged as pseudo-wars. But I think we should take note of the positive side of this politicization. In the total wars of the twentieth century, the combatants dehumanized their opponents, treating them as vermin to be exterminated; this led to the tragedies in places like Auschwitz and Hiroshima. The Olympics were not held during either of the two world wars, and naturally no Olympic truce was adopted. We Japanese in particular should remember the cancellation of the 1940 Summer Olympics, originally scheduled for Tokyo, as a symbol of the effects of all-out war without truces.

Politicized sporting events may be labeled “war by other means,” but they are opposite in nature to total war aimed at the annihilation of enemies. They are pseudo-war games in which defeated rivals can repeatedly come back and challenge the victors. To the extent that these contests serve as a substitute for the destruction and carnage of the battlefield, they fully qualify as a civilizing force.

As we prepare to host the Olympics in Tokyo, we must recognize their nature as pseudo-warfare between nations, and with this in mind we should draw on the power of design to make them as civilized as possible. And it is all right for the design process to involve imitation. I believe we should first ask ourselves what positive effects we can achieve by using the 2020 games as a political tool.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 14, 2018. Banner photo: The members of the North Korean and South Korean teams parade together at the closing ceremony for the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang on February 25. ©Jiji.)

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