Photo by Paul Hudson, Flickr CC

For many across the globe, the Olympics is a chance to celebrate a shared human connection, athletic achievement, and national pride. The Olympic Charter claims the Games encourage friendship, cross-cultural understanding, and world peace, but to do so the games must be free of politics. The Olympics present an opportunity to cross divisive diplomatic lines, like the temporary calming of tensions between North and South Korea. But these ideals may be overly optimistic as these global events have real political effects.

Historically, only the economic and social elite participated in the Olympics, so other versions like the Worker’s Games countered the Olympic Games in the early 1900s. In addition, the Olympics themselves have become a space to challenge the status quo. Protests, or lack thereof, can challenge or reinforce global norms.
Sporting events like the Olympics may allow nations to compete with each other without the consequences of war. Non-violent competition is even more important in the modern world, where technology allows for increasingly lethal methods of warfare. This may be one reason nations financially invest in producing elite athletes and could be behind recent controversies, like the Russian doping scandal.
Though intended to be apolitical, nations may attempt to use the Olympics to sway global public opinion. Foreign policy officials report that political rebranding was a key reason to host the games. Modern media channels make this motivation even more powerful than in decades past, as nations know that the Olympics will have extensive global coverage.