The Sports Celebrity in the Face of Crisis

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Sports and sports players are far from immunized from the realities of the wider social or political life.

In some cases this has a beneficial effects on international relations. One instance has been recently marked with celebrations this month of the 40th anniversary of the initiation of the famous Ping-Pong diplomacy.  After a Chinese and American player established a friendship at a 1971 tournament in Japan, Chairman Mao recognized the importance of this personal US-China relationship and invited the US team to play in Beijing.  This tourney in turn facilitated the ‘the week that changed the world’ with the 1972 visit of President Nixon to China.

The harsher impact on international relations of such sports events stands out in Munich massacre during the 1972 Summer Olympics. In this instance, members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and ultimately killed by members of Black September.

The highly different consequences for sports participants – some celebrities and others not –was on display this week because of two very different events.

The first of these received very little attention: the difficulties imposed on athletes from the Philippines in training for the Southeast Asian Games later this year in Jakarta, Indonesia.  Because of the ongoing Spratly Island dispute between the two countries, an MOA between the Chinese Sports Ministry and the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) remains unsigned.  Consequently, athletes from the Philippines – in fencing, weightlifting, wushu, diving, table tennis and shooting – have been unable to train at world-class Chinese facilities alongside some of China’s top-rate athletes.

The second story unfortunately grabbed the bulk of the attention  the tragic killings in Norway.  Such a massive shock puts activities such as sports events in perspective. Do the athletes from a country such as Norway continue in the course of their sporting events – do they continue training?

Obviously, with killings as in Munich taking place at the site of the Olympic games, this question about continuing to participate or not was hugely controversial.

On the surface the argument for Norwegian athletes continuing to participate – whether in the last legs of the Tour de France or the swimming world championship – seems much stronger!  After all the killings in Norway were far removed from the actual sporting events. Moreover, an argument could be made that it is best to maintain a sense of normalcy and keep going. Yet, as witnessed by the reaction of the Norwegian cyclist who said he just hoped for the Tour de France ‘to be over’ even elite athletes are not immune from the generalized trauma of such a national shock

Although Celebrity Blogger is about celebrities, a few points of interconnection with geo-politics merit attention.

Out of the limelight athletes of a small vulnerable country such as the Philippines must struggle to react to circumstances (perhaps with a new forms of Ping-Pong diplomacy!) to deal with the policy linkages imposing restrictions on them.

In the limelight a country such as Norway with not only a host of sporting celebrities but a positive brand of diplomatic activism – its mediation efforts in a number of arena, including most famously the Oslo process aimed at bringing peace to the Middle East – has a much great range of agency.

Even with all these resources, however, Norway will now require renewed efforts to craft its global brand due to the actions of one individual- the antithesis of a celebrity.

Public domain This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code  U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 2nd Class Shawn Burns. (RELEASED) 021126-N-1777B-001.jpg


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