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Geography, power and the Olympics

October 2012

Geopolitics is defined as the relationship between power and the spaces of the world. At London 2012 there were 204 such spaces – the nations that competed

"The modern Olympics are supposed to be about two things: promoting peace around the world by non-violent competition that is above politics, and exalting athletic achievement," writes world-renowned social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein.

According to the Olympic Truce, countries now agree to adhere to 7 days of peace before and after an Olympic Games. The concept of an Olympic Truce can be dated back to Ancient Greece and at least 800 BC, when participants and spectators had to travel across hostile territories to reach the Games. The Olympic Truce today plays an important role in establishing contact between communities in conflict and in creating opportunities for dialogue between countries at war.

However, Wallerstein adds that competition is often accompanied by an inherently political subtext and stories of conflict, power and pride often get played out in the Games. Indeed, the success or failure of a national team is viewed by some onlookers as reflecting upon the prestige of that given nation.

This goes a long way to explaining the large amount of public money spent in many countries to help ensure athletic success. But although winning Olympic and Paralympic medals is an important symbol of national prowess, so too is hosting the Games. Whether prestige is attained through winning medals or hosting the event, Wallerstein makes one point clear: "Geopolitics has never been absent from the games."

Geopolitics is defined as the relationship between power (the ability to make decisions and act accordingly) and the spaces of the world. At London 2012 there are 204 such spaces – the nations that are competing, each bounded by national borders and clearly defined through symbols such as the national flag, clothing and anthem.


This article can be used or adapted to support:

  • A-level teaching of ‘superpowers’

In the Members' Area:

  • BRIC by BRIC: The power of hosting the Games
  • Disputed soil: The Falklands, the Malvinas and ‘soft’ power
  • How things change: London over the years

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