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'Ding-Dong' Diplomacy in Sochi

Publication Date : 10-02-2014


The 2014 Winter Olympics kicked off in Sochi on Friday with a festival of music, dance and fashion, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin's bravado in front of international media for organising the largest and most expensive Games in history. Despite a general sense of unease that permeated much of the commentary during the inauguration ceremony, we shouldn't hide our pleasure in watching the action on TV, and openly praise US President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron for using “Ding-Dong Diplomacy” to ring some bells in the minds of Russian leaders. Boycotting the Games' grand opening was a counter to anti-gay and other controversial human rights laws introduced into the Russian parliament last year.

Contrary to the “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” introduced in 1971 by the US table tennis team, whose competitive participation in mainland China helped thaw relations between the two countries after a 22-year Cold War, this “Ding-Dong Diplomacy” aims to show world leaders that Putin has failed to dispel the anger, fear and suspicion that marred the buildup to the 22nd Winter Olympics without concerns of further isolating Russia on the international stage.

Nobody wants to hurt the legitimate pride of the Russian people for their years of hard preparation that have made it possible for their country to host an international sports event featuring 15 winter sport disciplines. Hosting the Games, however, should be acknowledged as a reward to a nation and celebrates its rebirth, like the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, or celebrates its rise to power, like the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. In other words, the Games are not intended to be an award for a leader governing with an iron fist while believing that he embodies the country.

Even if this is not the first time that a host country undertakes Pharaonic works to build sport infrastructure in the middle of nowhere, the estimated cost of US$51 billion has failed to improve the lives of those living in the area, not to mention the environmental damage that the 2014 Winter Olympics have already caused. Even though the organisers pushed ahead with a green theme while working with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), they failed to deliver a Games “in harmony with nature” as originally planned. Hosting the Winter Games in a subtropical region where it snows less than anywhere else in Russia was not only an incongruous choice, but a blatant demonstration that the sports event was further aimed at glorifying one man — the country's supreme leader.

With these major concerns in mind, we must admit that the US, French and British leaders' rational use of a boycott on Friday has shown Western leaders' ability to agree upon a comprehensive and balanced response beyond their political agenda. Everybody agrees that the Olympic Games provide a unique platform that governments can use to make a political stand, but some commentators also warned of the consequences of an Olympic boycott. The latter are often considered “political failures” that usually demonstrate politicians' most common sin — ineptness — at the expense of professional athletes. Here are some of famous examples of such failures.

Taipei's boycott of the 1976 Games after Taiwan was not allowed to compete as the Republic of China didn't bear fruit. The same was true with the US-led boycott by 65 Western governments of the 1980 Games in Moscow over the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. The UK, Italy, Spain and France did send their national teams to Moscow against the US government's wishes but it failed to stop Moscow's plans to occupy the landlocked sovereign state. Again in Los Angeles in 1984, the Soviet Union and 13 communist allies declined to participate in retaliation for the US boycott four years earlier. Romania was the only Warsaw pact country to send a team to the Games. Last but not least, North Korea refused to participate in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul due to the failure of its co-hosting bid. Only Cuba and Ethiopia stayed away in support of North Korea, much to the discontent of their local athletes.

In comparison, late South African athlete Dennis Brutus, who led the Olympic banishment of his country between 1960 and 1992, demonstrated that a sporting event can be a tool in a boycott that directly involved a sports issue, namely South Africa's ban of black athletes from its national teams. In order to send the Russians the same kind of unequivocal signal, the new “Ding-Dong Diplomacy” could make further gains by making their “political” participation in a diplomatic event involving Vladimir Putin's participation conditional to improvements in the human rights situation in Russia. By sending this kind of positive signal more often, world leaders could be more successful in twisting any president's arm. In the meantime, we can describe last Friday's awkward situation with the help of a popular sports term: touché!


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