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  • Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia
  • Kevin D. Kim
Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia, by Victor D. Cha. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 200 pages, illustrations, tables. $27.95 cloth, $18.50 paper.

In this work, Cha takes “a general look at ways in which the worlds of sport and politics have collided either by design or by chance, much to the consternation of sports ‘purists’” (p. 3). In contrast to its intrinsic value, Cha illuminates sport as tool of State—”political capital,” in sociological terms—and how this interacts with other issues in international sporting competition, like money (“economic capital”) and national prestige (“symbolic capital”). Sport as political tool rankles fans because, with their explicit rules, clear differentiation of friend from foe, and spacio-temporal circumscription from broader consequences, games transcend life’s profane mess. Yet “sport matters in world politics because it can create diplomatic breakthroughs (or breakdowns) in ways unanticipated by regular diplomacy[,] is an unmistakable prism through which nation-states project their image to the world and to their own people[, and] can be a facilitator of change within a country” (pp. 2, 3). This duality in sport of inherent versus extrinsic value engenders ironies. For example, although “[d]ating back to the ancient Greek Olympics in 776 bc, sporting competitions offered a temporary reprieve from daily life for the purpose of developing strong bodies and minds” (p. 4), it also imposed “ekecheira,” the Olympic truce between Greek states that fostered Greek solidarity. (p. 7) Indeed, even the purist ethos of self-cultivation has practical didactic value, or “cultural capital.” (“The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”) Sport might be more overtly political in Asia because of the infrequency of the Games there, the turbulence of Asian history, and the dynamism of the region (p. 23). Ironically, the Chinese government promulgated an apolitical sports purism to deflect human-rights criticism, despite China’s political and economic motives to host the 2008 Olympics; doubly ironic here is the modern Olympic movement’s grounding in liberal ideals (p. 28).

There are three schools of thought on sports in international relations. One focuses on state power, sport being “merely another playing field for interstate competition and cooperation.” Another sees “world politics not just in terms of powerful states but as supplemented by a multiplicity of nonstate actors.” The third “emphasizes the role that nonmaterial factors like values, ideas, and national identity play in the world. . . . Sport . . . transcends state boundaries” (p. 31). For Cha, there are three key areas where sport has been politically significant, namely, in amplifying national [End Page 160] identities, promoting diplomacy, and facilitating domestic and foreign policy change (p. 3).

First, in terms of identity, “sport, national pride, and international prestige are inextricably intertwined” (p. 33). But identity is more than pride, since sport “can be manipulated by elites to create allegiance,” even colonial elites or elites in multiethnic or merged states engaged in nation building (p. 41). Sport can also be used to assert independence within colonized countries, although the Games tend to “standardize” a country (p. 45). It can augment a country’s “soft power” or global status (“symbolic capital”) (p. 47). For example, “[t]he 1964 Games did not herald Japan’s coming out as a newly developing country but its reintegration in the twentieth-century international system as a reformed global power [comparable] to Rome (1960) and Munich (1972) rather than to Seoul (1988) and Beijing (2008)” (p. 54). In fact, “there was arguably no single event in the post–World War II era that played a bigger role in shaping [these] nations’ narratives of where they had come from and what they aspired to be in the future” (p. 50).

Second, sport can facilitate diplomacy. “At certain times throughout history, sport has helped foster progress in difficult situations when normal diplomacy was ineffective,” like Mao and Nixon’s use of ping pong competition as a pretext to diplomacy (p. 34). Sport “offers an ‘out-of-the-box’ tool for creating openings and progress between estranged countries that ordinary foreign-ministry negotiations cannot use,” but...


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pp. 160-162
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