We may never know what triggered the ugly brawl between the Georgetown Hoyas and a Chinese army pro squad in Beijing on Thursday. But it certainly put an ironic spin on an exhibition series that the U.S. State Department conceived of as “sports diplomacy” between the two countries. Actually, I can’t believe that anyone still takes the idea of international-friendship-through-sports seriously. 

You would have thought it had already been discredited by the history of the modern Olympic Games, supposedly founded to recreate the peaceful spirit that reigned during the ancient Olympic Truce. Instead of peace, love and understanding, the Games have been suffused with politics of a rather nasty sort from the get-go. Highlights include Adolf Hitler’s use of the 1936 Berlin Games as a fascist demonstration project; the Palestinian terrorist attack on Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972; and the boycotts of Montreal 1976 (by African nations protesting apartheid), Moscow 1980 (by the U.S. and Western countries protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) and Los Angeles 1984 (by communist countries retaliating for 1980).

Oh, and did I mention the rampant drug abuse and cheating? I’m sure I’m not the only member of my generation who’s still smarting over the bizarre officiating that enabled the Soviet Union to “defeat” the U.S. basketball team by one point for the gold medal back in 1972. 

Yes, ping-pong matches between the U.S. and a then-isolated China helped break the ice between the two countries in the early 1970s. But that’s an exception that proves the rule. Honduras and El Salvador went to war in 1969 after a series of bitter soccer matches punctuated by street battles between fans of the two countries’ national teams. A half-baked effort at “baseball diplomacy” between Communist Cuba’s national team and the Baltimore Orioles in 1999 turned ugly when a Cuban umpire tackled and beat a demonstrator who ran onto the field carrying a sign demanding democracy on the island.

 To the extent it is possible at all, international harmony develops after many years of economic and political interaction that establish a modicum of trust and common interests. It takes a lot of hard work by diplomats, businessmen and, alas, soldiers: all too often, comity is only possible after countries have first knocked some sense into each other through repeated wars: e.g., the U.S. and Great Britain or Germany and France. There’s no short-cut across the playing fields. 

In fact, athletic competition can be an especially bad way to get people to like each other, because--it’s competition! The governments that sponsor these matches all too often have something to prove by winning, whether it’s the superiority of Communism or democracy or the Aryan race or El Salvador, or whatever. And so, while they talk publicly about diplomacy and mutual understanding, behind the scenes they’re pressuring their athletes to win for the greater glory of their nations. Nationalism only fuels the athletes’ natural inclination to do whatever it takes to win – until the ref blows the whistle. Come to think of it, without at least a little bit of the old nice-guys-finish-last attitude, they wouldn’t be very good athletes, would they?

At last report, the ill will between Georgetown and China’s Bayi Rockets had been banished, at what I am sure was a very cordial meeting between representatives of the teams at Beijing International Airport. Judging by the footage of the brawl, however, which, in addition to the crazed violence on the court, includes some Chinese fans giving the Hoyas the finger, and others throwing dangerous projectiles at the Hoyas’ families, it’ll be a long time before any Chinese or American who was actually at this game, or even saw it on video, will harbor a warm and fuzzy feeling toward the other side.

More likely, they will communicate their new-found hostility to their friends, who will pass it on to theirs and so on, until history records yet another triumph for the cause of friendship through international athletics.