The Olympics Curse
In the relatively common phenomenon known as the “Olympics Curse”, countries or even entire regions change dramatically soon after hosting major sports events like the Olympics or World Cup, sometimes for the better but often for the worse. This is typically the result of boom-bust economic cycles: countries bid for the tournaments during periods of growth but, by the time the tournaments finally take place, leaner years have set in.
While there are also of course many positive examples of countries hosting sports events, during the past decade the curse of the Olympics has been especially striking. It was felt most recently in the aftermath of the “BRICS” economic cycle, which had led to Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Sochi in 2014, and Beijing in 2008, and to World Cups in Brazil in 2014, South Africa in 2010 and (for cricket) Mumbai in 2011.
The BRICS boom first began to waver in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, as the global financial crisis began and put China’s exports to the US and Europe into question. This forced the Chinese to rely instead on growing debt — and then on a new cult of personality, that of Xi Jinping —to keep their boom going.
The slowing economic growth in Europe and China also took a toll on commodity prices, which in turn crushed the Russian, Brazilian, and South African economies. Russia responded to this economic threat by going to war with its neighbours, first in Georgia in 2008 (the day before the Beijing Olympics), then in Ukraine in 2014 (three days before the end of the Sochi Olympics). Brazil, meanwhile, entered its what has been perhaps the worst recession in the country’s modern history; its president, Dilma Rousseff, ended up being impeached last summer (ten days after the Rio Olympics) in a political scandal that just won't end.
While India escaped the BRICS slowdown relatively unscathed (and also never hosted the Olympics), it too has undergone a political shift in recent years, with the defeat of the Congress Party and success of Hindu-nationalist figures like Narendra Modi and, recently, Modi’s chosen leader for Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath.
Even the Olympics in Vancouver in 2010 and London in 2012 were, in effect, extensions of the BRICS boom. Both cities are hubs of activity and investment for persons originating from China (in Vancouver’s case) or emerging markets in general (in London’s). Both have also experienced some trouble of late.
Vancouver is experiencing a housing affordability crisis partly as a result of capital flight from China, while London — where housing prices are not exactly affordable either— suffered defeat in its country’s Brexit vote.
Before the BRICS sports spree began in 2008, there was Europe’s. Athens hosted in 2004, Turin in 2006. Berlin too played host in 2006, to the World Cup. It was the year before the 2007-2008 financial crisis, which led to a “lost decade” in Europe that has, among other things, wrecked Greece, weakened Italy, and brought Germany nearer than it would like to becoming again the most decisive but reviled country in the region.
For South Korea, which will be hosting the first-ever Winter Olympics in continental Asia next year in a city less than 100 km from the DMZ, the hope is that the worst of the curse has already taken place in the past year. South Korea’s economy grew more slowly in 2015 and 2016 than in any year since 1998 (with the exception of 2009, the year of a global recession), and its president was impeached in the closing days of 2016.
Yet if the effect of the Olympics truly is a consistent phenomenon, then there is no reason to expect that Korea won’t continue to change. Not only is South Korea hosting in the winter of 2018, but all of the major sports events in the near future are going to be held in countries that surround the Korean peninsula.
The 2018 World Cup will be in Russia, the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Even the host of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar, has Korean connections: South Korea is the number one destination for Qatar’s exports.
For North Korea, the changes in the region that these upcoming sports tournaments may foreshadow are, if anything, only one more indication that the status quo on the peninsula is becoming less and less likely to hold.
Whether through rapprochement, reunification, or regime change, it seems that the country and the region are headed for a significant change in political conditions.
It is possible that sports will play even a direct role in this change. Sports diplomacy, after all, has a long history in the region. The US and China played ping-pong in 1971, just months before Nixon’s infamous trip to Beijing; they were at the time among the first Americans to officially visit China since the Korean War. More recently — just this past week, in fact — South Korea’s Chung Mong-gyu, the first Korean to hold a seat on FIFA’s council since 2001, announced that he and FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino both support a proposal for South Korea, North Korea, China, and Japan to co-host the football World Cup in 2030.
Even Dennis Rodman, who played on the 1990’s Chicago Bulls (Kim Jong Un’s favorite basketball team), used a sport trip to North Korea in 2014 as an opportunity to reach out to the isolated, tyrannical regime.
If war is to be averted, we can hope that Rodman’s Celebrity Apprentice co-star, Donald Trump, will now follow suit.