Reexamining the Olympics as an Instance of Cultural Globalization
by Colleen Kropp
The Olympic Games have the unique ability to generate feelings of joyous pride and enthusiasm on an international scale. Viewers eagerly watch their home country’s representatives exhibit skills most of us can only dream about possessing. More than just a display of athletic skill, the Olympics are themselves an occasion for witnessing what Dr. Vida Bajc labels an instance of cultural globalization.
An instructor in the Sociology Department here at Temple, Dr. Bajc teaches courses on globalization, social movement, the environment and more. Her most recent book, Surveilling and Securing the Olympics: From Tokyo 1964 to London 2012 and Beyond, takes a linear methodology to examining the nature of the Olympic Games. Her research and scholarship carefully consider the key issues of security and surveillance that come forth in light of certain global events, such as a presidential inauguration, papal visits or, in this case, the Olympic Games. A sociologist, Dr. Bajc approaches studying the nature of the Olympics differently than a historian would. She explains that historians, typically, would study the Olympics in a specific manner, like focusing on Mexico 1968 or Munich 1972, but not necessarily taking in a macro historical view.
Her interest in performative events led her research to the Olympics, which she sees as “a logical progression of [her] theoretical and empirical work.” The Olympics presented themselves as a “self-evident case study” that would allow Dr. Bajc and her research team to explore the surveillance and security procedures at the forefront of these types of global events. It is important to “understand historical dynamics, cultural background, within the context in which the Olympics will be taking place." This becomes increasingly apparent in the Pyeongchang games that just wrapped up last week .
Dr. Bajc remarks that “cities have different reasons for why they want the Olympics–it is an occasion to draw attention to the city,” and it’s nothing if not a media saturation point. For over two weeks, half the world is tuning in to your city at some point, and this is happening at a time when everyone is inundated with information through all avenues of social media.
As a point of comparison, she looks to the 1988 Games in Seoul, where there was a similar situation between North and South Korea as exists today. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to have South Korea host the games, denying North Korea’s request to co-host. South Korea was going through a series of military dictatorships, and South Korea thought the games could be utilized to showcase its superiority to the North on both economic and political planes. The fallout was not the most pleasant.
Nearly three decades later, the Koreas were faced with a similar problem, except this time, South Korea’s approach was quite different. With the change in government in March 2017, new South Korean President Moon Jae-In—a civil rights lawyer with “extensive experience in peace negotiations” who had run on a platform that privileged “establishing economic and political cooperation between the two Koreas”—had a deeply laid desire to establish ties between North and South. The Olympics became his golden opportunity to bring representatives from the North to South Korea.
Dr. Bajc explains that “negotiations happen between people who trust one another—if there’s not trust nothing will ever happen.” As such, the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism allowed the North Korean delegates to participate on their own terms, and, significantly, the IOC did its part to reach out to Washington D.C. and other cities to ensure this was a moment to truly “treat the Olympics as an opportunity for political dialogue.”
How did this dialogue take place and what did it look like? For one, the UN General Assembly approved the Olympic truce, a noteworthy symbolic action. But taking a look at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies allows for a clearer image of what this truce really looks like in the public eye. These ceremonies are types of rituals, and in its most elementary sense, Dr. Bajc describes a ritual as an “event that brings together individuals of a particular group, and it reminds them that they are members of the same group and it strengthens ties between them—that’s what rituals do.” In the case of the 2018 Olympics, there was a clear and distinct decision to structure the Opening Ceremony in such a way that it would make the North Korean participants feel comfortable and have a sense of belonging.
The choice to march in together under one neutral flag emphasized the desire to move past any images of division or exclusion. While the Koreans marched in the Opening Ceremony, a folk song was playing that “just about everyone having to do with the Korean peninsula can relate to,” Explains Dr. Bajc, whose Social Movements course at Temple studies how people connect with songs and singing. It was originally performed with a more modern tone, but once the participants lined up in their places, “an older person dressed in traditional garb [sang] the same tune in a local version of the same story, reinforcing again this symbolism of one Korean people—the past, the present and the future all come together for a people who have a deep awareness of shared language, shared heritage, shared ancestry—it was a very powerful way of communicating here to the Korean people.”
These specific cultural nuances, though, are not usually discussed by the commentators on television. Despite the worldwide broadcast, then, there is much lost opportunity to engage and understand more of the cultural particularities of the host country. This emotional and sentimental moment would not be clear to many viewers, but even so, the 2018 games became an arena for the IOC to really drive home the message of peace and reconciliation.
Why is it that the Olympic Games can draw attention to these things? The games by definition are inclusive, the type of event designed to bring together people from nations the world over. As Dr. Bajc reminds us, “sheer competition isn’t really interesting—you need other things,” hence the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. The IOC “chose to emphasize peace and reconciliation,” and examples like the folk song and the shared flag are tangible reminders that aim to promote those feelings of peace.
When discussing music in her Social Movements course, Dr. Bajc’s class looks at “how harmony resonates between people—how it creates the feeling of how one body relates to the next and the next, and then the sea of bodies through which this harmony flows feels like one.” The folk song was not just background music. It emphasized shared roots and culture, a simple gesture with magnificent ramifications, bypassing decades’ worth of negative images. Continuing to study the Olympics with a wider breadth and depth would allow many “to learn about cross-cultural relationship, globalization of culture, not just economic, but social globalization.” It becomes an opportunity that repeats itself with regularity and opens up the space for critical discussion inside and outside the classroom on a global level.