Geopolitics is defined as the relationship between power and the spaces of the world. At London 2012 there were 204 such spaces – the nations that competed
"The modern Olympics are supposed to be about two things: promoting peace around the world by non-violent competition that is above politics, and exalting athletic achievement," writes world-renowned social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein.
According to the Olympic Truce, countries now agree to adhere to 7 days of peace before and after an Olympic Games. The concept of an Olympic Truce can be dated back to Ancient Greece and at least 800 BC, when participants and spectators had to travel across hostile territories to reach the Games. The Olympic Truce today plays an important role in establishing contact between communities in conflict and in creating opportunities for dialogue between countries at war.
However, Wallerstein adds that competition is often accompanied by an inherently political subtext and stories of conflict, power and pride often get played out in the Games. Indeed, the success or failure of a national team is viewed by some onlookers as reflecting upon the prestige of that given nation.
This goes a long way to explaining the large amount of public money spent in many countries to help ensure athletic success. But although winning Olympic and Paralympic medals is an important symbol of national prowess, so too is hosting the Games. Whether prestige is attained through winning medals or hosting the event, Wallerstein makes one point clear: "Geopolitics has never been absent from the games."
Geopolitics is defined as the relationship between power (the ability to make decisions and act accordingly) and the spaces of the world. At London 2012 there are 204 such spaces – the nations that are competing, each bounded by national borders and clearly defined through symbols such as the national flag, clothing and anthem.
BRIC by BRIC: The power of hosting the Games
Disputed soil: The Falklands, the Malvinas and ‘soft’ power
How things change: London over the years
The Chinese city of Beijing hosted the summer Olympic Games in 2008, which played an important role in presenting China to a global audience. Following this lead, the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro will host them in 2016. That’s two of the four BRICs welcoming the world to the greatest show on earth and Russia will host the winter games in 2014. The success of emerging economies (also categorised with the rising forces of Russia and India) in bidding for the Games is a sign of recognition that they now command considerable power on a global scale.
Brazil’s prominence on the world stage has been established through its status as:
A vibrant democracy and vast consumer market of 190 million people
A nation with abundant natural resources including oil reserves and land for agriculture
A relatively strong and stable economy, as shown by resilience to recent financial crisis
A key player in climate change policy, due to the importance of the Amazon basin
A diplomatic force respected by the world’s superpowers, as shown in its membership of the G20 group and discussions about whether Brazil should have a permanent place on the UN Security Council (Financial Times, 9 November 2010)
A key advocate for developing nations to have a larger role in global decision-making
"Just as the Beijing Olympics of 2008 marked China's revival as a world power," Reuters (2 October 2009) explain, "Rio 2016 may be seen as a stamp of approval on the South American giant's coming of age." Brazil’s successful bid and triumph over US city Chicago is testament to the previously marginalised nation’s rise to a diplomatic and industrial "heavyweight" today.
"The world has recognised that the time has come for Brazil," said President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (BBC, 2 October 2009). Lula da Silva suggested that the first ever Games in South America would speak to global inequality and inspire an entire continent. "It is time to redress the balance," he said. "It is time to light the Olympic flame in a tropical country."
Brazil’s victory was the United States’ loss. President Barack Obama personally appeared before the International Olympic Committee to speak for Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games. Obama recognised Brazil’s successful bid as a "truly historic" win (BBC, 2 October 2009). "As friends to the Brazilian people, we welcome this extraordinary sign of progress," he explains.
However, Immanuel Wallerstein (15 October 2009) is keen to point out in his analysis of Rio’s success that the failed US bid is part of a bigger picture in which the superpower is losing its grip on the world. "The vote was a clear geopolitical put down," he says.
The US struggle on power was similarly shown up when it transpired that US Olympic clothing was being manufactured in China, rather than in the US. This was seen as an illustration of the rise of the BRICs and the continued development of the global economy in which manufacturing has been distributed away from the US and Europe.
Some members of US Congress fear that China is unfairly able to outcompete the superpower when it comes to industry. An undervalued currency, trade barriers and state subsidies mean that China is one of the most competitive global producers and the US struggles to compete (BBC, 16 July 2012).
In the lead up to London 2012, attention was drawn to geopolitical fault lines between Argentina and the United Kingdom. The release of a video promoting the Argentine Olympic team carried a message demonstrating the South American nation’s sovereignty claims to the overseas UK territory of the Falkland Islands.
Following a series of early European colonisations, Britain re-established its rule over the Falkland Islands, located in the South Atlantic, in 1833. However, in 1982 the Falkland’s war saw Argentine troops invade the islands before surrendering to the British Task Force which was sent to the islands. Argentina’s claims over the islands, which they refer to as the Malvinas, have continued, however the UK government reiterates a stance of non-negotiation over the territory (Geographical, April 2011).
The Olympic video shows Argentine hockey captain Ferenanda Zylberberg training in the streets of Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands. This includes shots of British symbols such as red telephone boxes, Union and Falkland Islands flags, Land Rovers and UK streets signs. The closing titles translate as: "to compete on English soil we train on Argentine soil" – suggesting that the Falklands naturally belong to Argentina.
Hon. Ian Hansen of the Falkland Islands Government responded to the video by expressing "disappointment" at any attempt to bring politics into the Olympics. "It is hugely disappointing to see sport abused in this way, when it is so often seen as a vehicle for unity," he said. It was also criticised by the British Government and Zylberberg was withdrawn from the Argentine team (BBC, 4 May 2012)
Geographer Dr Alasdair Pinkerton (9 May 2012), who has spent time conducting research in the Falklands, refers to the use of media to make territorial claims as a form of "soft power." "[The video is] a powerful reminder of the unresolved emotions associated with the 1982 conflict," he says.
Reminding us that the Olympic Games do not necessarily rise above conflict, Pinkerton adds that the Games can be viewed "as a lightning rod for political protest, as a venue for competing ideologies."
London has hosted the Olympic Games an unprecedented three times – in 1908, 1948 and 2012. The world has changed beyond recognition over the years and so too have the nature of the Games. Most notably the world is getting increasingly interconnected. In 1908 just 22 nations competed, in 1948 59 competed, but today an astounding 204 nations compete (The Guardian, 10 July 2012) – that’s more countries than there are in the United Nations.
This summer, 10,500 athletes will travel to London to compete. In return, London will send over 200 hours of television coverage out to the world. Back in 1948, it was impressive enough that the Olympics were shown on home television, attracting 500,000 viewers in the British Isles.
The 1908, 1948 and 2012 Games also reveal the reordering of global superpowers. In 1908, Britain, a global superpower with colonial reach, dominated the competition and occupied the top step of the podium, easily winning more gold medals than any other nation. However, by 1948, the United States ruled the medal table. By 2008 China topped the medal table, although the USA claimed first place in 2012, followed by China and Great Britain.
However, there is more than one way of looking at the medal tables. For example, we can redraw the map of sporting achievement if we take into account geographical factors such as population and GDP (The Guardian, 7 August 2012). For example, relative to its population, Jamaica won ten times more gold medals than the table-topping US – an alternative view on geopolitics that Dr Alasdair Pinkerton touches on in our recent Ask the Expert interview.
You can further explore the geography of London 2012 with our KS3 resources.
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