This should have been a summer like no other for Tokyo. After 56 years, the Games of the XXXII Olympiad and the Paralympic Games should have returned to the city to bolster former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s grand project to revitalize Japan. Like in 1964 – when Tokyo, as the first Asian city to host the Olympics, sought to demonstrate to the world that it had emerged from the post-war period and transformed into a strong, liberal democracy – the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were meant to show the nation and the world that ‘Japan is back’ and that the 2011 Fukushima triple catastrophe was a thing of the past.

Perspectives Asia #9 front cover
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Perspectives Asia #9

But the corona pandemic struck the world. Although Mr. Abe stubbornly clung to his plans and pretended for weeks that everything would go on as ‘normal,’ the International Olympic Committee on 24 March announced the postponement of the Games until summer 2021. Now Tokyo has to wait another year to become the first Asian city to host the summer Olympics twice.

And it has set a new record, as the first Olympic host to be plagued by postponements twice.

In fact, large sporting events are often entangled with politics and hidden interests. In his 2009 book, ‘Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia’, Victor Cha argues that sports can impact diplomacy, serve as a prism to project a country‘s vision, and facilitate change within a country[1]. This seems especially plausible in Asia, where in the early 1970s small ping-pong balls helped to end the Cold War between China and the United States; in 1988 the Seoul Olympics were a catalyst for South Korea’s surprising transformation into a democracy; and in 2018 Pakistan’s greatest cricketer, Imran Khan, became Prime Minister. Fittingly, former Indonesian President Sukarno – after setting up the Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO) in 1963 as a counter to the Olympics, and having his country banned from the Olympics the following year – declared: ‘[N]ow let’s frankly say, sports have something to do with politics.’

This issue of Perspectives Asia examines such intersections of sports and politics. We look at how, through sports, identities are shaped, myths and heroes are born, and unconventional truths are buried. Brian Bridges gives a concise analysis of the political currents behind the various summer and winter Olympics held in China, Japan and South Korea. Koide Hiroaki, an activist in Japan’s anti-nuclear movement and former nuclear engineer, points out the Japanese government’s mismanagement of the Fukushima disaster and its aftermath, and questions the strategy of using the Tokyo Olympics to divert attention from the ongoing consequences of the nuclear meltdown.

Ashish Khandalikar highlights some fascinating statistics about the Olympics from a distinctly Asian perspective. Who would have known, for example, that the first Olympic gold medal won by an Asian was received by Tejbir Bura from Nepal at the first Winter Olympics in 1924 in Chamonix, France, where the 1922 British Mount Everest expedition was recognized for its (unsuccessful, and for seven Indian porters tragically fatal) attempt to conquer the world’s highest peak?

Extreme sports expert Ding Yiyin gives an account of how skateboarding, BMX racing and other previously subculture sports have found their way into China and are enriching the country’s sporting horizons. Zainab Hussaini explains how skateboarding is helping to build trust among young children, often girls, from different ends of the social divide in Afghanistan, many of whom bear the scars of war-time trauma.

Joanna Son explores how sports can help to build a shared identity across nationalities. The ASEAN nations’ Southeast Asian Games, which officially include indigenous martial arts beloved throughout the region, such as muay, sepak takraw and pencak silat, have helped to transcend national boundaries and build a regional sense of community. One such sport, kabaddi, has spread from India to large parts of South Asia and beyond. Shripoorna Purohit describes how this unique sport has gone beyond its origins and captured the public imagination.

On the other hand, the SEA Games exhibit a complex amalgam of nationalism, patronage and corruption. Bonn Juego explains these linkages and sketches out a path towards the depoliticisation of sports for more positive purposes.

Photojournalist Pho Thar, recently released from Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison after a 14-month sentence for making fun of the military, follows a cohort of disabled athletes from Myanmar’s Paralympic Sports Federation. His photographs testify to the transformational power of sports.

While athletes and sports enthusiasts around the world sport fancy jerseys provided by global brands and sponsors of large sporting events, the workers who make them, mostly female, toil under atrocious conditions in the garment sectors of Cambodia and other Asian countries. Rachana Bunn raises her voice for them, calling for more respect for human rights, and an end to  exploitative working conditions in garment factories.

Gender fluid bodybuilder Law Siufung discusses the multiple hurdles LGBTI athletes in Asia have to deal with, and suggests ways to nudge the rules, norms and market forces towards gender diversity.

With the battle against the coronavirus far from over, sports may seem like a distant memory to many people. It remains uncertain whether the Olympics and Paralympics will take place in 2021 in Tokyo, or will be cancelled altogether. Nevertheless, when the games do resume, the rich, diverse and complicated interactions between sports and societies in Asia will continue. So will the struggles over exploitation and exclusion related to class, race and gender, which, as Bonn Juego puts it, are best overcome by collective political action.

With this issue, the production of Perspectives Asia has moved to our new regional office in Hong Kong. We look forward to working with the other Asian offices of Heinrich Böll Stiftung to provide political analysis from Asia twice a year. Please contact us should you have any suggestions, questions or comments.

Clemens Kunze, Kevin Li, and Lucia Siu
The editors
Heinrich Böll Stiftung Hong Kong Office


[1] CHA, VICTOR D. Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia. NEW YORK: Columbia University Press, 2009.