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.


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.


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.

And though the most prominent symbolic clash between the Cold War titans was, of course, the Miracle on Ice hockey game in the 1980 Winter Olympics, Cold War politics were also blamed for the still-controversial end to the 1972 gold-medal men's basketball game. Disputed calls in the last three seconds of the game between the United States and the Soviet Union brought the five officials to a vote; the three Communist Bloc judges voted in favor of the U.S.S.R., and the ensuing 3-2 vote awarded the Russians a 51-50 victory over the Americans. The incensed American team would not accept silver—not then, and not ever. To this day, 40 years later, enough silver medals for a whole basketball team still sit gathering dust in a vault in Lusanne, Switzerland.

The Korean national athletic teams, thankfully, have drawn precious little proverbial blood over the years. Recent political developments have halted inter-Korean sporting events in recent months, but in the years since they began competing as separate countries, the two Koreas have actually enjoyed relatively healthy sporting rivalries. Only one notable scuffle seems to stick in the collective memory of global sports fans: After a World Cup qualifier in 2009, the North Korean men's football coach accused the South Korean team of poisoning his team's food after the squad suffered a 1-0 loss in Seoul.


What gets lost, though, by focusing on the possibility of hate-fueled outbreaks of international sports brutality, is how comfortingly rare they actually are. In other words, peoples and countries with unfinished business do frequently manage to put their differences aside, at least between the start and end of regulation play—but those well-behaved matchups almost never make the news.

Very little fanfare, for instance, greeted the 1904 Summer Olympic lacrosse match between the Mohawk Indians and the Winnipeg Shamrocks, the latter being a team of white Canadians whose fathers and grandfathers had invaded and settled in Mohawk territory. What little documentation exists suggests only that the Mohawks took home bronze, their white rivals won gold, and then each team went home.

In 1996, Croatia politely defeated its hostile neighbor Yugoslavia, 8-6, in the quarterfinals of men's water polo. On the same day, India and Pakistan played a relatively uneventful game of field hockey just two days after India's socialist party had publicly burned an effigy of the Pakistani prime minister. The only outbreak of violence on that day in Olympic history was the result of a pipe bomb planted by an American terrorist in Atlanta's Olympic park.

The list goes on: Georgian and Russian air riflers hugged and kissed one another on the podium while Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia in 2008. When China played baseball against its scorned prodigal son Taiwan that same year, the game shocked viewers only by going to a 12th inning.

Ekecheiria echoes faintly in the humbling quietude of these Olympic moments—their unremarkability, really, is what makes them so remarkable.


Daniel Pinkston, North East Asia Deputy Project Director at the International Crisis Group in Seoul, expects Friday's North Korea-South Korea matchup to fall into this "unremarkable" category of internationally symbolic playoffs. "I wouldn't expect either side to ever pull out of an inter-Korean match at an international sports tournament once they had committed to competing," Pinkston wrote in an email. However, he says, it's become trickier to predict what might happen in a North Korea vs. South Korea encounter. "Recently, there haven't been many inter-Korean sports matchups, so it's difficult to assess inter-Korean relations in the realm of sports during the last few months."

John Delury, a professor of International Relations at Yonsei University, downplays the nationalist-athletic poignancy even more. He points out that the "Beat North Korea" instinct among South Koreans is actually pretty muted: "If there's any particular team South Korea likes to beat, it's Japan," Delury wrote in an email. "Most South Koreans root for North Koreans in every contest except an inter-Korean one. Even when the governmental relationship between Seoul and Pyongyang is particularly bad, like at present." Such is the complexity of being Korean, he adds.

North Korea and South Korea may not see eye-to-eye anywhere but the Olympic ping-pong table these days. But at least they're both at the ping-pong table. And given what we know about the healing powers of table tennis to soothe the aches and pains of uneasy international relations, maybe that's a good start.

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