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Asia’s Olympic moment has its roots in Cold War politics

Tokyo turns out for its returning athletes after the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Reuters

Asia’s Olympic moment has its roots in Cold War politics

Tokyo turns out for its returning athletes after the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Reuters

China, host of the 2008 Summer and 2022 Winter Olympic Games, has turned into a major sports power, if its medal tally at the recent Rio Olympics is any indication. Japan, which will hold the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, and South Korea, where the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games will be held, are further examples of the growing influence of a group of Asian countries in the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Taken together, this indicates that “the time of Asia” in the Olympic movement has indeed arrived, as IOC president Thomas Bach recently said.

But East Asia is not all of Asia. An Indian bid for the Olympic Games, for instance, seems unrealistic in the near future. And southeast and Central Asian countries’ bids to host the 2000 or 2008 Summer Olympics have also been unsuccessful.

Iran is the anomaly; until the Islamic Revolution in 1979, it was considered a very serious candidate for hosting Olympic Summer Games. Some other countries in West Asia and the Middle East, such as Qatar (the host of the controversial 2022 FIFA World Cup and an unsuccessful bidder for the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympics), have recently gained a noteworthy influence in sports affairs as a result of their financial wealth.

Many of these developments go back to the 1970s. This period saw a large-scale reconfiguration of Olympic sport in Asia and demands to give Asian countries more influence at the IOC. But it was the Seventh Asian Games (Tehran 1974), a regional sporting event and training platform for the Olympics held under the patronage of the IOC, that accelerated the “rise” of the above-mentioned Asian countries in the Olympic movement.

The ‘two Chinas’ problem

The struggle for legitimacy between China and Taiwan is the background to all this. Since 1949, both have claimed to be the sole representative of “China”. This meant that each country was unwilling to participate in any sporting event in which the other country was also taking part.

China had left the Olympic movement in 1958 as a direct result of its conflict with Taiwan. And the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, resulted in Beijing’s withdrawal from all other international sporting events.

The country returned to the Olympic Games only in 1980. Its return was the result of earlier negotiations with the IOC about Beijing’s intended participation in the Seventh Asian Games in 1974.

China’s national flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Jerry Lampen/Reuters

One of China’s main supporters was Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s Iran. His engagements with China led to increased anti-Soviet political cooperation after Tehran diplomatically recognised Beijing in 1971.

Shortly afterwards, Beijing took the seat of “China” in the United Nations, which had been held by Taipei until then. This was the result of decolonisation and of a growing number of UN member countries being sympathetic to Beijing’s claim.

The Japanese members of the Asian Games Federation were also important supporters of China’s participation. The Japanese had come to the conclusion that Beijing represented China and intended to make the Asian Games more of a challenge by including Chinese athletes.

Simultaneously, the Tehran Games, the first hosting of an Asian Games event in West Asia, had a strong impact on many of the Arab countries in the region. Some of them had only shortly beforehand experienced decolonisation and a financial boom through the first Oil Crisis in 1973.

In the end, seven of them joined the Asian Games Federation before or during the Seventh Games, which encouraged their involvement in Olympic sports affairs.

The geopolitical background

Geopolitical shifts had a massive impact on the Iranian government’s plan to leverage China to counterbalance the Soviet Union. Strong ideological tensions had emerged between China and the Soviet Union since the late 1950s.

The reason for the heightened concern over the USSR in the 1970s was the 1969 declaration by an overstretched Britain of its intent to permanently withdraw all its troops based east of the Suez Canal by 1971. This decision strongly contributed to the decolonisation process in the Persian Gulf.

These tensions eventually convinced the Iranians that China could be used to limit the USSR’s freedom of action.

Britain’s decision to withdraw its troops from east of the Suez Canal led to decolonisation in the Persian Gulf. Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

Intensifying cooperation with other Asian countries, and especially with China through the hosting of the Seventh Asian Games, was a way to support Iran’s anti-USSR plan.

After Japan and China normalised relations in September 1972 and the Japanese Olympic Committee became interested in bringing China into the Asian Games, discussions with the Iranians intensified. A final decision was reached at an Asian Games Federation council meeting on November 16 1973.

The People’s Republic was chosen as the representative of China. And Taiwan was expelled from the Asian Games until 1990, when it accepted being renamed as “Chinese Taipei”, leaving its international status vague.

International sports federations and the IOC, by then tired of decades of Cold War-related political quarrels within the Olympic movement, eventually accepted China’s participation and the highly problematic discrimination against Taiwan.

Asia’s growing influence

China’s return to the Olympic movement via the Seventh Asian Games had a significant influence on its participation in the Olympics beginning with the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid.

The IOC’s acceptance of the Asian countries’ decision regarding China and especially Taiwan highlighted Japan’s growing importance on the world stage, given that it had already hosted the Olympics twice – in 1964 and 1972.

Though less influential, Arab countries also became more involved in Olympic affairs through the Seventh Asian Games. Only Iran was unable to utilise this newly gained influence.

Then-IOC president Lord Killanin, who had attended the Seventh Asian Games, judged Tehran qualified to host the Summer Olympics in 1980 (eventually held in Moscow) and 1984 (eventually held in Los Angeles). The Shah’s government, though, had to deal with the superpowers’ own desires to host these events and in 1979 was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution. Needless to say, the new government was not interested in continuing these plans.

Iran never applied for the 1988 Summer Games. These games then took place in South Korea, the second Asian country ever chosen (instead of Iran) to host the Olympics.

In the case of Southeast Asia, the next Asian Games (Jakarta and Palembang 2018) will reveal if Indonesia is willing – and able – to host the Olympic Games in the not too distant future.