The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The limits of sports diplomacy as a solution to the Korean crisis

It's great that North and South Korea are teaming up for the Olympics. But don't expect it to solve the peninsula's political crisis.

When athletes of the rival Koreas walked together behind a single flag for the first time since their 1945 division at the start of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, it was a highly emotional event that came after their leaders’ first-ever summit talks. Eighteen years later, the Koreas are pushing to produce a similar drama during the PyeongChang Olympics. (Lee Jin-man/AP)

After a surprise round of negotiations, North Korea and South Korea have agreed to march behind a single flag in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies next month, with an athlete from each side carrying the banner. The countries also will field a joint team in women’s ice hockey. For the two nations, divided since the 1940s, the partnership is one of the most promising signs of a diplomatic thaw in decades.

While a big step for relations on the Korean peninsula, it’s not the first time the International Olympic Committee has promoted the idea of a combined Olympic team for a divided country. During the 1950s and 1960s, the IOC forced West Germany and East Germany to compete as a single Olympic team. The antagonism between the two Koreas, though, along with the difficulties in previous Olympic negotiations, suggests that observers should temper their expectations. Sport can go only so far in diplomacy.

The occupation of Germany following World War II prevented the country from participating in the 1948 Olympic Games. Four years later, the Germans returned to the Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway, and the Summer Games in Helsinki, Finland. At both events, the only Germans who competed came from West Germany. The IOC accepted the German Olympic Committee’s argument, which used the same rhetoric as Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s government: West Germany was the sole legitimate German state because the Federal Republic held free elections.

This did not stop the IOC from trying to create an all-German Olympic team before the Games. But the East German sports leaders stood up to those at the IOC and in West Germany, staying in their hotel rooms in Copenhagen instead of attending the agreed-upon meeting.

After 1952, however, East Germans did not want to continue to be excluded from sport’s biggest stage. They consented to form a unified German team for the next three Olympiads. From 1956 through 1964, East Germans and West Germans competed under a black-red-and-gold flag that contained the five Olympic rings in the middle; the emblem on their uniforms was the same. If a German athlete won a gold medal, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” played as the national anthem.

Every four years, athletes from both German states competed against one another to determine who would represent Germany at the Olympic Games. For individual sports, these competitions were easily determined. Team sports, on the other hand, did not select the best athletes from either side. Instead, a West German side played an East German team, and the winning team represented Germany at the Olympics. Even though West Germany had the much stronger soccer tradition, winning the World Cup in 1954, the team a decade later at the Tokyo Olympics was composed solely of East German players.

With each iteration of the all-German Olympic team, the IOC and its American president, Avery Brundage, declared a victory for sport over politics. Particularly as the Cold War intensified and the Berlin Wall was erected in August 1961, the IOC believed it was able to achieve what politicians could not: a united Germany.

These claims belied the truth: that the negotiations for the all-German Olympic team became more contentious every Olympiad, even though they resulted in the same agreements. At the Tokyo Olympics, German sport leaders could not agree who would carry the flag at the ceremony where it would be raised in the Olympic Village, leaving the team to march behind just its sign.

Only with the IOC’s 1965 decision to recognize East Germany in full did the two German states compete separately at the Olympics. At the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, East Germany could finally field its own team — and it continued to do so through 1988. The first time the East German flag officially flew on West German soil was during the 1972 Games in Munich.

The Cold War fueled the German-German athletic competition, including driving the state-sponsored doping system within East Germany. The two Korean states, on the other hand, have had a much icier sporting relationship.

Koreans had been participating in the Western-style sports included on the Olympic program since the 19th century. However, the Republic of Korea did not have its own Olympic team until 1948. North Korea received IOC recognition in 1957, and the country did not send its first athletes to the Olympics until the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria.

Before the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, the IOC spent three years negotiating with North Korea for a few events to be staged there. The South Koreans participated in these discussions to ensure that other communist states would not boycott the Games, as they had in Los Angeles four years earlier. After the IOC secured participation from the rest of the world, and in light of North Korea’s unrealistic demands to host eight sports — one-third of the entire Olympic program — the 1988 Olympics took place entirely in the South Korean capital, without North Korean participation.

South Korea’s adoption of the Sunshine Policy, a softened attitude toward North Korea, in the late 1990s helped both Korean states agree to march together during the Opening Ceremonies in 2000 and 2004. But unlike the German example from the 1950s and 1960s, North Korea and South Korea maintained completely separate teams.

With the Olympics returning to South Korea, the IOC and international federations are doing everything they can to ensure that North Korea participates. A North Korean figure skating pair has qualified for the Games after the IOC extended a registration deadline when the North Korean Olympic Committee missed it. The IOC also has provided additional spaces in the Olympic field for North Korean speed skaters and skiers.

In addition, the IOC brokered the agreement for North and South Koreans to compete together in events on one team, something that has occurred only at two much less publicized sporting events: the World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, Japan, and the World Youth Football Championship in Lisbon. The 2018 Olympics will see a joint North and South Korean women’s ice hockey team with an expanded roster and at least three North Korean players suiting up each game. Such efforts could promote the idea of political unity, but at the expense of the perspectives of individual athletes.

With these agreements reached over the weekend, participation by any athletes representing North Korea will be a monumental step. North Korea boycotted both the 1986 Asian Games and 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, so their decision to cross the Demilitarized Zone to compete in PyeongChang will be a milestone in the countries’ relationship.

With tensions on the Korean Peninsula quite high, many people are hoping sports diplomacy can do what political diplomacy has not. But the past experiences of an all-German Olympic team and the difficulties with previous Korean sport negotiations suggest that a much more cautious outlook for what any North Korean participation in PyeongChang can ultimately accomplish.