Stephen M. Walt

A Sporting Proposition

I don’t know how many people subscribe to both Foreign Policy and Sports Illustrated, but I do know lots of people who take athletics seriously. Human beings seem to be hard-wired into making “in-group/out-group” distinctions, so it’s not surprising that the loyalty that sports fans show for their favorite teams looks a lot like the ...


I don’t know how many people subscribe to both Foreign Policy and Sports Illustrated, but I do know lots of people who take athletics seriously. Human beings seem to be hard-wired into making “in-group/out-group” distinctions, so it’s not surprising that the loyalty that sports fans show for their favorite teams looks a lot like the broader phenomenon of nationalism. And I’m not saying that just because I’m a proud member of Red Sox Nation.  

Success in sports can be the first step toward a successful political career (e.g., Bill Bradley, Sebastian Coe, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack Kemp, etc.) and athletes like Pele, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods have become genuine global icons. Of course, using sports to demonstrate national prowess or as a source of national pride is a common practice. The revival of the Olympic games in the 1890s was at least partly intended to promote international cooperation and understanding, but as a good realist would expect, the Games eventually became yet another arena where states could try to demonstrate the superiority of their own system and enhance their global influence.

Anyway, as summer winds down and the fall term looms, I found myself wondering about various episodes where sporting events actually had an effect on world politics, or told us something about how the world was changing. Here’s my list of ten key moments, in no particular order.

1. The Berlin Olympics, 1936.

Adolf Hitler uses the Olympic Games to highlight the superiority of the Nazi regime, but his efforts are at least partly undermined when a black American, Jesse Owens, wins four gold medals.

2. La Guerra de futbol (aka “Soccer War”): El Salvador vs. Honduras, 1969. 

Here’s a case where sports may have helped cause a war: a hard-fought match between El Salvador and Honduras in a preliminary round for the 1970 FIFA World Cup exacerbated the existing tensions between the two states and helped spark a brief four-day war in which over 1000 people died. The war ended inconclusively and El Salvador eventually won the actual match, but was ousted in a subsequent round and did not make the finals.

3. “Ping Pong Diplomacy:” U.S. Table Tennis Team Visits China, 1971

During the world championships in Japan, the U.S. table tennis team received an unexpected invitation to visit China, and shortly thereafter became the first group of Americans to visit China since the communist takeover in 1949. The “ping heard ’round the world” was the first tangible sign of normalization between the United States and China (even though the Chinese teams reportedly had to throw a few matches to the Americans). The visit was obviously not the cause of the subsequent rapprochement, but it shows how sporting events can be an effective diplomatic tool.

4. U.S. Women Win Soccer World Cup, 1999.

I see this as significant for two main reasons. First, it underscores the growing importance and legitimacy of women’s sports, which has been an important element in modern feminism. Second, it shows the United States finally demonstrating real prowess in the world’s most popular sport. Plus, the final game was against China, which makes it a nice harbinger of 21st century geopolitics.

5. Black September at the Munich Olympics, 1972:

Palestinian terrorists seized and eventually killed eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games. The heinous act sets back Palestinian national aspirations and triggers a protracted Israeli reprisal campaign that assassinated a number of Palestinian leaders and at least one innocent victim.

6. South Africa Wins Rugby World Cup, 1995.

South African teams were barred from most international competitions during the apartheid era, a step that highlighted the regime’s pariah status and helped undermine popular support for the policy. The post-apartheid team’s victory in 1995 was a vivid symbol of South Africa’s new beginning, symbolized when President Nelson Mandela awarded the victor’s trophy to team captain Francois Pinear, a white Afrikaner.

7. Australia II Wins America’s Cup, 1983.

The Aussie victory broke what was probably the longest winning streak in the history of sports — 132 years of dominance that began when the schooner America outpaced a British flotilla in a race around the Isle of Wight in 1851. (When she asked who had finished second, Queen Victoria was reportedly told “Your Majesty, there is no second.”). In retrospect, one could see the Australian victory as a symptom of globalization: cutting-edge yacht design wasn’t an American monopoly any longer. Since then, alas, the competition has been driven by another American export: gamesmanship and ceaseless litigation over the rules of the competition.  

8. The “Miracle on Ice”: the U.S. Olympic Ice Hockey Team Defeats the Soviet National Team, 1980. 

Labeled the greatest sports moment of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated, the improbable defeat of a heavily-favored Soviet team by a group of U.S. college players arrived at a moment when many Americans mistakenly felt the Soviet Union was pulling ahead. In fact, the USSR was on its last legs, though its hockey establishment remained a powerhouse and eventually sent a lot of players to the NHL.

9. “Das Wunder von Berne:” Germany Wins World Cup, 1954.

An underdog German team defeated Hungary in the final in Berne, a win that set off a wave of euphoria in Germany and is seen by some historians as a key event that restored a sense of national pride after the shame of the Nazi era and helped signal Germany’s re-integration in the world community.

10. Pentathlete Boris Onischenko Disqualified at Montreal Olympics, 1976.

I was on the fencing team in college, so I can’t resist adding this to my list.  Onischenko was a member of the Soviet modern pentathlon team who was disqualified after referees discovered that his sword had been modified to enable him to register “hits” on the electronic scoring machine by pressing a switch concealed in his grip.  Together with the East German steroid scandal, such episodes helped undermine the image of the Soviet empire.  Plenty of other athletes have cheated, of course — think of sprinters Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, bicyclist Floyd Landis, and subway-riding “marathoner” Rosie Ruiz — but their transgressions had less impact absent the Cold War atmosphere.

There are other examples one might add: Budge versus von Cramm at Wimbledon, the controversial Soviet “defeat” of the U.S. men’s basketball team at Munich, or the notorious Soviet-Hungary water polo match at the 1956 Olympics (played in the shadow of the Hungarian Revolution, the game was so violent the water reportedly turned pink). So please feel free to contribute your own suggestions.

IOC Olympic Museum /Allsport 

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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