North Korea Is About to Play South Korea in Ping-Pong: Big Deal?

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Are Olympic match-ups between feuding nations as momentous as they seem?

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When British news outlets announced last week that North Korea and South Korea would meet in the opening round of the Olympics men's table tennis tournament, it was hard to resist plucking at the low-hanging fruits of disaster humor. The proverbial ammunition (ammunition!), of course, was all there: "[Things are] gonna get nuclear," the twin-comedian Sklar brothers quipped on Twitter, while jokes about ping-pong balls of mass destruction whizzed back and forth at breakneck speed across the Internet.

Yes, it's an encounter pregnant with political symbolism—and these 30th Olympic Games have given the world a telling glimpse of what sorts of hostilities are festering between the two neighboring nations. Trouble was brewing before the Games even officially started. The North Korean women's soccer team had already threatened to withdraw from the Olympic tournament thanks to the now-infamous flag mix-up in which stadium officials mistakenly displayed the South Korean flag before a North Korea-United States women's soccer game. North Korean officials had squabbled with the South Korean news photographers who showed up to their men's table tennis team's practice. Graver kinds of resentment between the two warring republics have escalated in recent months, too, after a feebly explained "satellite launch" by the North Koreans in April and repeated threats of a North Korean attack.

Given those circumstances, it's almost too easy to envision cartoonish, cathartic bloodthirst erupting from Friday's matchup. But what if the looming, inevitable ping-pong reckoning—the final, explosive table-tennis battle of the ideologies—turns out to be... just a ping-pong match?

Maybe don't get your hopes up for a dramatic confrontation, because if history is to be believed, chances are it will be just a ping-pong match. The Summer Olympics' history books are littered with would-be "grudge matches" just like this one. And while there are a few instances in which tense or warring nations actually did unleash their partisan aggressions on the field or the court, most of the potential clashes between athletes from feuding countries either happened with a courteous air of mutual restraint—or never took place at all.

CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTIONS... MOSTLY

The earliest Olympics in ancient Greece called for a temporary but complete peace among participating nations known as ekecheiria: Nations at war were to cease fire so that athletes and their families could travel safely to and from the Games. The motivating principle behind ekecheiria was, in a sense, honored in the early years of the modern Games, as the Olympics were forgone during the first and second World Wars. But the clear definition of "at war" splintered and then disintegrated in the second half of the 20th century, and the notion of an Olympic truce was disregarded, all but replaced by a different diplomacy tactic: boycotting.

Boycotts became a regular feature of the Olympics in the late 20th century, when political strife mounted to such overwhelming levels that invited nations simply couldn't justify competing. There were organized boycotts of every Summer Olympics between 1976 and 1984, when Cold War hostilities were deepening. The United States stayed home from the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; at the following Summer Games in Los Angeles four years later, the U.S.S.R. returned the favor, along with several other Eastern Bloc states.

Boycotts by one or more nations on account of another single nation's presence also became common: The People's Republic of China boycotted the Games in 1956 on account of the IOC's recognizing Taiwan, and 22 African countries boycotted the 1976 Games because the IOC included a New Zealand team even after it had toured apartheid-era South Africa (then banned from the Games). Similarly, Palestine-sympathetic Arab and Muslim athletes have a long history of refusing, or suddenly and mysteriously becoming too ill, to compete in events with Israeli participants—most recently, contestants dropped out of men's and women's swimming in 2008, and men's judo last week.

By contrast, the way North Korea and South Korea have represented themselves at this thirtieth Olympiad sends a ringing message to the rest of the watchful world. They're both present, for starters. And on Monday, a North Korean and a South Korean both showed up to play a clean, predictable game of men's singles ping-pong, and only some subtle awkwardness surfaced between the two camps. Relations could be much, much worse.

PLAYING DIRTY AT THE OLYMPICS

In some cases, there's recognizable honor in boycotting. There's a high-road element to forfeiting one's chance at Olympic glory for the sake of rebuking injustice or honoring national values. And that shouldn't be overlooked.

Some politically impassioned athletes, however, take the low road.

In 1956, a year in which several European countries had boycotted the Olympics in Melbourne to protest of the Soviet occupation of Hungary, the U.S.S.R. and Hungary themselves elected to participate. Fatefully, their water polo teams squared off in the semifinal game of the men's tournament. Dubbed the "Blood in the Water" game in the years that followed, the showdown turned very ugly, very fast when a Russian player sucker-punched Hungarian player Ervin Zador in the eye; Hungarian spectators leapt of the stands, chaos erupted, and the game was called off. Hungary, who led 4-0 at the time the match was suspended, went on to win the gold medal. But after the Games were over, only half the team elected to return home—after a tearful goodbye to their teammates at the airport, many defected to the United States, Australia, and other nations granting asylum to refugees.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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