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Trading paddles for rings: How South Korea can use ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ in the 2018 Olympics

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The 2018 Winter Olympics will be hosted in a controversial area: South Korea. This area is one of America’s most controversial diplomatic arrangements because North Korea knows exactly how to provoke and escalate situations. Kim Jong Un quickly learned from his father about the flippant threat of nuclear weapons, and how to goad President Trump by making veiled threats of war.  

Hosting the Olympics has definitely been used as a parameter to show a country’s power in respect to economics and politics. Citizens still believe that the Games will lead to economic growth and reinforce political superiority of the host country. In reality, the answer is huge no — at least, economically.

The 2016 Oxford Olympics Study found that the Games are one of the most costly — and financially most risky — type of megaprojects that exist. The Olympic Games have caused actual outturn costs of $5.2 billion for summer games and $3.1 billion for winter games. Cost overrun is found in all games between 1960 and 2016. The average cost overrun has been $8.9 billion, which is an average of 156 percent.

{mosads}The Rio Olympic Games, for example, were almost a tragedy. The 2016 Games failed not only economically but politically as well, with the international media headlining numerous negative stories, including Zika, political corruption, various environmental issues and, of course, the cost.


Are there any other reasons to host the Olympic Games?

Those who idealize the Olympics love to argue about the so-called “spillover effects,” which are indirect benefits such as the nation’s image enhancement, citizen pride and potential economic growth. For instance, some argue the United Kingdom enjoyed a generally positive global image throughout the 2012 Games, and that London was projected as a business-friendly place. China seemed a big winner as well, with the 2008 Games playing a huge role in introducing a new appearance as one of the most powerful nations in the world.

Despite of all negative stories in hosting the Olympic Games in recent years, the “soft power” theory stands.

The concept of soft power, by Joseph Nye, has recently been a unique topic related to sports. Sports have been used as a critical vehicle of soft power strategy, which utilizes the ability to influence others by attraction and persuasion. Perhaps the best example is President Nixon and Mao’s “ping-pong diplomacy” in 1972, which dramatically opened the relationship between the U.S. and China during the Cold War, without any use of hard power.

So what is the best way South Korea can capitalize on the 2018 Olympic Games? The answer lies with North Korea.

As with “ping-pong diplomacy,” the South Korean government has tried to cooperate with North Korea in hosting the 2018 games. The women’s ice hockey team will compete as one team, and there is a notorious cheerleading group in North Korea that will join the South Korean group to support one Korea. As long as South Korea creates a narrative with North Korea, the 2018 Olympic Games will be successful — that’s the best way the Olympics can serve as a soft power strategy. 

Keunsu Han, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the sport management program at Towson University. He was recently a visiting scholar in the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies at the University of Oxford.

Tags China Donald Trump London North Korea Olympic Games ping-pong diplomacy Rio South Korea

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