Global face/off

Mini versions of international disputes are being played out in the Olympic Games arenas

We may see the hammers being hurled, the sea being sailed and the roads being run, but throughout the Olympic venues there are interesting quirks, contentious flare-ups and small scenes of wider international political situations.

One of the anomalies of the Games themselves is that the competition begins before the official opening ceremony has taken place. And so it was in Glasgow, two days before the grand spectacular in the Olympic Stadium, where North Korea’s women took on their Colombian counterparts in the football tournament. And the Scottish national stadium Hampden Park was where the North Korean footballers were introduced on the big screen alongside the South Korean flag, a serious mistake and one which was not taken lightly by Pyongyang. After much complaining and apologising the match got under way and the Asian women seemed to have been spurred on by the banner mix-up and saw off the Colombians 2-0.

A few days later, Great Britain’s men played their Argentinian counterparts in the Riverbank Hockey Arena. The tone for this particular game had been set in May when Fernando Zylberberg, one of the Buenos Aires players, took part in a training video (below) on the Falklands Islands (or Las Malvinas) that provoked reactions of patriotism at home and widespread anger in the UK. Ironically, Zylberberg eventually did not make the London 2012 squad because of concerns over his fitness, despite the athletic moves he pulled out in the clip. The controversy over the video unsurprisingly spilled over into the match, with several heavy challenges going in and both teams having players sin-binned.

Source: pupianews, 6 August 2012

The Olympic and Paralympic Games also give smaller nations often disregarded on the world stage the chance to come out and participate. But the process of choosing who is and who is not an Olympic nation is complicated. Hong Kong, Bermuda and Puerto Rico are represented independently of China, Britain and the US despite closer constitutional links. But Kosovo and South Sudan have not been granted International Olympic Committee (IOC) membership yet. Their athletes have to undergo the bizarre but by no means uncommon choice to compete for another country (or, indeed, for the IOC themselves, as in the case of marathon runner Guor Marial) in order to take part in the Games.

Countries which have gone through or are going through the Arab Spring, such as Syria, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain, all still turned out teams and with Qatar and Saudi Arabia selecting women athletes, all competing Olympic nations have now had female representatives on their books for the first time.

Another bone of contention is over Taiwan. China considers the island to be its twenty-third province but the Taiwanese feel very strongly that the two countries are just that – separate nations. However, the islanders have no seat at the United Nations and few official diplomatic relations, although many state have informal ties with Taipei. China, (or the People’s Republic of China), exerts a lot of pressure globally to try to win support for Taiwan just to be seen as part of the larger motherland and the island has had to bow to different stresses in order to be able to compete in the Olympic Games. At London 2012, as at Games past, Taiwan (or the Republic of China), uses the name ‘Chinese Taipei’, which is drawn from the name of its capital city. And an invented flag flies above the athletes; one that combines the Olympic rings and the country’s national sun symbol.

But before the Games had even begun there were protests linking back to geopolitics, some of them more laughing matters than others. Iran claimed that the official London 2012 logo was actually a coded reference to Zion, and therefore a secret way of forwarding Jewish nationalist propaganda on a global sporting stage.

An island life for me

Tempers have flared up again between Russia and Japan over the disputed Kuril Islands. Islands remain at the centre of many international territorial conflicts.

On Thursday 10 February Japan’s foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, restated his country’s commitment to the belief that the four southernmost islands of the Kuril group remain under Japanese jurisdiction. His call comes after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the contested archipelago in November last year. During his trip Medvedev promised greater development and outlined an increase in military presence on the islands, clearly not a move that has been welcomed in Tokyo. Remarkably, the fractious nature of the two countries’ relationship over the Kurils means that they still have not got round to signing a joint peace agreement to end World War Two hostilities between them.

Islands are at the centre of an ongoing dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia. The San Andres and Providencia group in the Caribbean has been part of Colombia since the 1920s but Nicaragua took the issue to the International Court of Justice in 2001, which ruled in favour of Bogota. Managua’s main argument is over location, and the islands are much closer to Nicaragua, but it would not be surprising if the tourist factor also plays a part in their disquiet: the islands are beautiful Caribbean hotposts, an English creole is widely spoken and visitor numbers are growing.

Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela. Source: marcellogentile1, YouTube, 11/02/11

At the other end of the Americas, there are The Falklands, or Las Malvinas, as they are known in Buenos Aires. A well-known island disupte which provoked a war between the two claimants in 1982. The UK posititon is clear: the islands were, are, and will remain British, for as long as the Falklanders themselves wish to remain under British jurisdiction (which at the moment they do). The Argentine outlook takes a similar line: the islands were, are, and ought to be part of Argentina. One only needs to look at an Argentine national map to understand the geographical stubbornness. But there has been a change of dynamic since 1982. Back then, Chile and the US both openly backed the UK, and Spain supported Argentina. But now many of Latin America’s leaders have openly urged the devolution of the islands back to Argentina, and idea rejected by London. Hugo Chavez famously railed against what he views as another example of ‘Western imperialism’.

The Kurils are next to Japan and form part of a territorial island link chain that goes north to Kamchatka. The Falklands are nearly 8,000 miles away from the UK. But the issue of island disputes is extremely old, complicated and is prevalent across the world (the examples above are just three of the more prominent disputes). It is not an argument that can be simply resolved by stating history, distance from home country or ‘proper ownership’.