Athletes Can't Stay on the Sidelines During World Events -- Even if They Want to

08/03/2011 11:22 EDT | Updated 10/03/2011 05:12 EDT

Top-tier athletes from traditionally powerful countries such as the U.S. and the UK appear to have a wide range of choice in terms of public life.

Besides those who have become robustly engaged in celebrity activism such as David Beckham, others are marked by a decided reluctance to get involved.

Although deeply involved in local causes in his hometown of Akron, for example, LeBron James notably refused to sign a petition concerning Darfur, urging fellow basketball players to pressure China to alter its position ahead of the 2008 Olympics.

Staying on the sidelines is far more difficult for athletes who don't enjoy universal celebrity status, even if they are extremely well known in a particular sport or national setting.

Many get caught up in social and political situations in which they have little or no control.

A number of highly publicized moments showcase the array of interventions that are possible.

2011 is the 40th anniversary of the famous ping pong diplomacy between the U.S. and China.

The catalyst for this initiative was the unanticipated friendship that developed between an American player (Glenn Cowan) and the Chinese player (Zhuang Zedong), a three-time world champion at a tournament in Japan.

When Cowan missed his team bus to return from training, he was invited onto the Chinese bus and after some casual talking through an interpreter, Zhuang Zedong presented him with a silk-screen portrait of the Huangshan Mountains.

In exchange, Cowan later gave Zhuang Zedong a T-shirt with a red, white and blue, peace emblem flag with the words "Let It Be".

Once in motion, however, this form of personal contact quickly became over-taken by geo-political strategizing at the highest level of state authority, a process that also enveloped Zhuang Zedong as he became sports minister during the cultural revolution.

Chairman Mao seized on this sideline moment, using this point of personal contact to mobilize a national initiative via an initiation to the U.S. table tennis team.

In April 1971, nine American players with a small entourage crossed over the bridge from Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland and played in some exhibition matches and toured the major sites in Beijing.

These events in turn facilitated the 'the week that changed the world' through the 1972 visit of President Nixon to China and the subsequent recognition of the People's Republic of China.

The harsher effect of the impact of external events, alternatively, stands out in the Munich massacre during the 1972 Summer Olympics when members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and ultimately killed by members of Black September.

Obviously, in these circumstances, the question about continuing to participate or not in their Olympic events was hugely controversial for all athletes.

After a memorial service, the remaining members of the Israeli team left. But the impact of the killings was felt far more widely, with many athletes stating that their enthusiasm to compete had been eroded.

Two recent stories highlight the intrusion of geo-politics into sports in variant but not totally disconnected patterns from these earlier episodes. The first witnessed the ability of the bigger political environment to restrict sporting contact.

Out of the spotlight, it is reported that athletes from the Philippines face serious challenges in preparing for training for the Southeast Asian Games later this year in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Because of the ongoing Spratly Island dispute, a memorandum of agreement between the Chinese Sports Ministry and the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) remains unsigned. Consequently, athletes from the Philippines in fencing, weightlifting, diving, table tennis and shooting, have not been allowed to train in world-class Chinese facilities alongside some of China's top-rate athletes.

The second story unfortunately grabbed the spotlight of global attention, the tragic killings in Norway.

Akin to Munich, such massive shocks put activities such as sports events in to perspective.

Do the athletes from a country such as Norway continue in the course of their sporting events, doing what they have been training for and carry on?

On the surface the argument for Norwegian athletes continuing to participate -- whether in the last legs of the Tour de France or the swimming world championship - has some justification.

After all, the killings in Norway were far removed from the actual sporting events that were taking place in other parts of the world.

Moreover, an argument can be made by such prominent sports figures as Alexander Dale Oen (the winner of the 100-meter breaststroke at the World Championships in China a few days after the killings) that such normalcy was valuable in order to "honour those that died."

Yet as witnessed by the reaction of world cycling champion Thor Hushovd, even elite athletes are not immune from the generalized effects of such a national shock -- in that he acknowledged that he was struggling to concentrate on the last legs of the Tour de France: "My mind is in Norway. It's hard to think about racing when in real life things like this happen... It's hard mentally...I'm looking forward to the end of the Tour."

Structural power thus often decides issues over the heads of even very prominent individual athletes.

And bad events happen that are outside the parameters of ordinary expectation when sporting events are taking place.

Yet, even under such onerous conditions, neither athletes nor countries are simply passive agents.

What is needed is a combination of skill and resilience.

A vulnerable country such as the Philippines could think of initiating some new type of ping pong diplomacy to kick-start serious talks on the bigger geo-political issues.

And in a country such as Norway -- with a distinctive brand of social transparency as well as mediation diplomacy -- considerable solace can be gained from the fact that even in a time of national trauma there is space for both a disciplined commitment to winning and for emotional self-reflection.