Tokyo 2020 was held, both despite and in the midst of the pandemic. It overcame the double hazards of: 1) persistent safety concerns despite one year of postponement due to the pandemic; and 2) negative public opinion in Japan against holding the Games. Both of these were extremely tough to overcome.
The hazards also led to low-profile publicity and an under-appreciation of the Games in Japan. It was unfortunate to see Tokyo 2020 treated like a bottle of wine ― half-empty, half-full ― despite the success of the Japanese national team.
Overall, around the world, however, the Olympics and Paralympics worked as a triple salvation. First, for the world, Tokyo 2020 provided a kind of light of hope, beaming on a service area in the long tunnel of the pandemic. The ideals of the United Nations are aligned very well with those of the Olympics. This time, the ideal of solidarity is amply and aptly highlighted by the IOC’s addition of “together” to the over-a-century-old Olympic motto of, “faster, stronger and higher.”
This addition, as IOC President Bach emphasized, recognizes the unifying power of sports and the importance of solidarity. It also reflects the common resolve to overcome the pandemic through global solidarity. The spirit of solidarity was well showcased through a refugee team at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and a march of the flag of Afghanistan at the Paralympics.
Second, for the sports community, Tokyo 2020 provided an invaluable “now or never” opportunity to athletes from around the world to compete at their top level. If the Games had been cancelled, many athletes would have lost a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Such a scenario would also likely have added salt to the wounds already inflicted on the sports community. By any account, sports have been one of the worst hit areas of human life by the pandemic over the last year-and-a-half. In terms of the empowerment and participation of women athletes, Tokyo 2020 also set a record.
Third, for Japan, Tokyo 2020 saved Japan from a possible curse that could have happened again 80 years after the first scheduled Olympics there ― the Tokyo Olympics of 1940 were cancelled due to World War II. Such a scenario would have been a bad omen, as both Tokyo 1940 and Tokyo 2020 were meant to highlight Japan’s recovery from natural disasters. The IOC was also able to avoid the so-called 40-year curse cycle that started from the 1940 cancellation and continued to the partial boycott of 65 countries of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, due to the former Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
Accomplishing this triple salvation was a great service that sports did for the world. It was made possible by building on the well-recognized tradition of sports diplomacy. A good example was the “ping-pong” diplomacy between the United States and People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s that opened the path to Sino-US detente. The most recent example was PyeongChang 2018, which paved the way for the Inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea summits.
Sports diplomacy can come true under two conditions: 1) when sports provide a neutral space separate from politics; and 2) when the parties are willing and ready to use the space provided by sports. Sports diplomacy is one reason why the UN and the IOC have worked together for many years to promote a peace agenda through sports.
Now, for the Northeast Asia region, the historic window of opportunity remains open. It is unprecedented to have three consecutive Olympics held in the same region within four years: 2018 PyeongChang Winter, 2020 Tokyo Summer and 2022 Beijing Winter games. If properly used by the relevant parties, this window of opportunity will help them explore a pathway to solving the Northeast Asia paradox.
The region is emerging as one of the most dynamic hubs of economic and technological advances in the world. But on the other hand, it is fraught with persisting security and political challenges. The peace agenda in the region is critical not only to its future, but also to that of the whole world.
At its center lies the U.S.-China relationship. China and the U.S. must find a path to enhance their mutual understanding on emerging global challenges, including in particular, the existential threats to humanity from climate change, weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. Diplomatic overtures around and at the Olympics, however small, will help the U.S. and China explore common ground to restart their dialogue.
For Korea’s peace agenda, a window still exists, despite a setback caused by the unilateral non-participation of North Korea in Tokyo 2020. This decision led to the IOC sanctions against their participation in Beijing 2022. However, individually qualified North Korean athletes might still be allowed to compete at Beijing. Another window will also be open, as the 2024 Winter Youth Olympics will be held in Gangwon Province, South Korea.
Only a few months are left before Beijing 2022; and the pandemic situation will likely persist. The lessons learned from Tokyo 2020 will help Beijing better manage the safety requirements for Beijing 2022. Enhanced cooperation for the Olympics will also help Tokyo and Beijing build mutual confidence in their future relationship.
Sports need to be separated from politics to preserve their neutrality and integrity. But sports can keep the door open for diplomacy to work to get international politics right. It all depends on the willingness and the readiness of the parties. Let us call on the parties concerned to work harder not to lose these windows of opportunity. Let us remind them of their shared responsibility to lead the region out of the Northeast Asian paradox.
Kim Won-soo (email@example.com) is the former under-secretary-general of the United Nations and high representative for disarmament. As a Korean diplomat, he served as the foreign affairs secretary to the Korean president. He is now the chair of the international advisory board of the Future Consensus Institute (Yeosijae) and a member of the Group of Eminent Persons for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBTO).