Olympics Remind Us That Sports Build Bridges Where Governments Can't

Engaging peacefully with someone who history says you should hate is no small task, but sports make it possible.


The United States and Iran met today at the Tokyo Olympics to play basketball. The elephant in the room—decades of geopolitical saber-rattling and proxy violence—was nowhere to be seen. The Americans clapped as the Iranian national anthem played. The Iranians applauded "The Star-Spangled Banner." Handshakes and niceties were exchanged before and after the game.

It was a match between opponents, not enemies. Historical relations between the U.S. and Iran might make that goodwill seem staggering—but today's game perfectly highlights the difference in how governments interact and how normal people do.

The story of U.S.-Iran hostility features one debacle after another. There was the 1953 Operation Ajax, in which the U.S. overthrew Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh; then, the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis and attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The two countries officially cut diplomatic ties in April 1980. President George W. Bush dubbed Iran part of the "Axis of Evil" in 2002; the U.S. has long been the "Great Satan" to Iran. Recent years have been filled with attacks, threats, and vitriol.

But there have been glimmers of rapprochement, and sports have brought some of that hope. In February 1998, the U.S. sent wrestlers to a contest in Tehran, the first time American athletes had traveled to Iran since the 1979 embassy attack. The event made the front page of the English-language Tehran Times. Iranian audience members "whistled in appreciation" as the wrestlers competed. Viewers cheered even as American Shawn Charles beat Iran's Mahdy Kaveh.

Just two months later, Iran sent its own wrestlers to a competition in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Rep. Robert W. Ney (R–Ohio) delivered congratulatory welcoming remarks, to great fanfare from the Iranians in the crowd. As the competition drew to a close, Iranian Wrestling Federation President Mohammad Taleghani announced on the arena floor that "he looked forward to the day when they could all attend a wrestling match in Iran."

The positivity built up during these citizen exchanges helped spark open dialogue among government officials. Secretary Madeleine Albright and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met later that year in the highest-level diplomatic contact between the two nations since the hostage crisis. The U.S. even lifted a few sanctions.

Progress would eventually stall. But the chance of reconciliation was there, and wrestling played a critical role in easing tensions.

Sports have long built bridges where governments have struggled. Perhaps the most famous example was the "pingpong diplomacy" of the 1970s, when the United States and China exchanged table tennis players. The athletic event famously gave way to President Richard Nixon's visit to Beijing in 1972—a turning point for Sino-American relations. The tactic would be used again in the 1999 Baltimore Orioles–Cuba national baseball team exhibition series, and once more in the U.S. and Iran's 1998 World Cup match. Of that exchange, American defender Jeff Agoos said, "We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years."

Today's basketball game likely won't be the turning point in U.S.-Iran relations. But with the two nations now uneasily renegotiating the terms of a nuclear deal, people-to-people interactions like these can't be undervalued. Though the efforts of private citizens can't produce a treaty or reopen an embassy, engaging peacefully with someone who history says you should hate is no small task.

It's often been normal people interacting with normal people—and not high-level political exchanges—that highlight what's possible for brutally opposed countries. By no means do the harsh rhetoric, sanctions, and tit-for-tat regional violence volleyed between the U.S. and Iran represent what citizens in those two countries want. U.S. basketball coach Gregg Popovich was right to lament today, "The Olympics, this is a venue where sports transcends all that petty crap between governments….We just wish this happened in real life."

But isn't this real life? Showcases like the Olympics are entertaining, but their true importance lies in showing how different people can and do unite around common pursuits. Even citizens of nations as antagonistic as the U.S. and Iran share the same desires and aspirations, regardless of the way their governments grapple. Without these athletic arenas, where could representatives of the fiercest enemies hang up their differences, agree to put aside decades of political hostility, and just play ball?

NEXT: Simone Biles Doesn’t Exist To Make America Proud

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  1. It’s a bridge to nowhere, considering the viewership.

    1. Both people watching said the game was good.

      Heard a story that someone with two tickets to the game had left them on their dashboard. Another person had broken into their car. When the car owner came back to discover this they saw that the thief had left another two tickets to the game.

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      2. Based on the evidence I’d say burglar or trespasser. Either way, sentence is summary execution.

  2. Engaging peacefully with someone who history says you should hate is no small task, but sports make it possible.

    By “someone who history says you should hate” are we talking about other nations or white people in general? Just trying to keep up with the zeitgeist.

    1. Reason missed the two muslim judo people who withdrew so they wouldn’t have to touch a jew.

      1. That’s different

      2. Not so much missed as ignored. We have narratives to craft and a JournoList to meet.

  3. “Now that the brief visit of the Dynamo football team has come to an end, it is possible to say publicly what many thinking people were saying privately before the Dynamos ever arrived. That is, that sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will, and that if such a visit as this had any effect at all on Anglo-Soviet relations, it could only be to make them slightly worse than before….Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”–George Orwell https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/the-sporting-spirit/

  4. So, bring back the Goodwill Games then?

    1. They were attacked and destroyed by the Salvation Army.

      1. Yeah, and someone was following them around inside the stadium, until they called security and the guy left in a white van.

  5. People don’t start wars, governments do.

  6. First take the olympics off nbc and get their preening commentators far away. Just show the sport and end the hair gel head cases in the “news” media who add nothing. I don’t want their dumb interview questions this is not a soap opera.

    1. We tried watching the games last night. We sat down with our dinner and turned on channel after channel after channel. Nothing but commercials, commentary and other nonsense.

      We finally settled on USA Channel, playing Table Tennis. For 20 minutes they talked about previous games (never once showing a recap or replay), and periodically focused in on the two players as they warmed up. Finally, Finally after 25 minutes, they started actually showing the game. We finished our food and turned it off.

      For crying out loud. This shit happened 8 hours ago in Asia, and you still make me wait around for a half hour of chit chat between two commentators whose only talent is having played Ping Pong back in college? What the fuck is wrong with NBC?

      1. “What the fuck is wrong with NBC?”

        Women like that way of storytelling for athletics. Blame Roone Ardledge.

      2. yeah, it’s all taped coverage. They could go 90% actual sports and maybe show some of the other events.

    2. NBC is bad. I was watching the triathlon the other day, and it had narrowed down to the last 3 guys, including the guy NBC assured the viewers was the best runner who was going to cruise to victory now that they were on the track, and some Norwegian guy who ran like a lumberjack.

      They had 4 laps around the 2.5 mile track to go, so NBC cut to a 2-minute commercial on the next to last lap. While they were gone, the lumberjack dude had taken the lead and never lost it. So the commercial break effectively blacked out coverage of the most critical 2 minutes of the 1.5 hour race.

  7. Olympics Remind Us That Sports Build Bridges Where Governments Can’t

    It’s true. Yesterday I felt a bond with Australia as their women’s soccer team played the US radfem actvism team.

  8. You mean people can interact as individuals without judging each other on the actions of their respective governments?

    1. No, not really.
      Glad that you swallowed the premise though.

  9. Sponsored by Apple. Apple. Don’t Ask Too Many Questions.

    1. Sponsored by Nike.
      Just Do It – because we bought you. Those $130 Jordan’s don’t sew themselves.

    2. Google – “We’re up to something.”

  10. “Olympics Remind Us That Sports Build Bridges Where Governments Can’t”

    But NBC’s left wing bleeding heart television coverage of the Olympics (hosted by woke minorities) is politicizing everything, especially left wing Trump hating commentator Lester Holt.

  11. Having separate women’s and men’s teams is so cisphilic. There should be one basketball team per country. And the same for the other sports. This would be equitable.

    1. Why are there even countries? There should just be one basketball team – period.

      Its inefficient, all this competition. The government can determine who the best basketball players are, put them all on the same team. After all, who needs 23 kinds of deodorant?

      1. There would at least need to be the Washington Generals…

        1. Aren’t they currently called the US Women’s soccer team?

      2. The one team just needs to show up to get the medal.

      3. I’ve long thought they should do away with the nationalist aspect of it. Some of these countries have no chance anyway. Why not make it Nike vs. Reebok vs. Under Armor vs. Adidas, and find out who really has the best athletes.

        1. Why not make it Nike vs. Reebok vs. Under Armor vs. Adidas, and find out who really has the best athletes.

          For a long time I’ve thought test group team anadrol/HGH/EPO vs. test group team dianabol/ephedrine/bromantan would be an interesting contest.

  12. So the only important question is did they kneel in fealty to an anti-western, marxist ideology? Hatred of the west, something Iranians and American progressives agree on.

  13. The Olympics is establishment globohomo propaganda about one world governance and shoving multiculturalism down our throats. Paid for with tax dollars. so of course Reason loves it

  14. You should probably tell that to the multiple competitors that walked away from competitions with Israelis in them.

  15. The Olympics were and are a elite shakedown racket on governments. Billions in taxes are poured into white elephant venues and the Olympic committee’s pockets.

    1. Billions in taxes are poured into white elephant venues and the Olympic committee’s pockets.

      That’s why we’re now “libertarianism lite”. We couldn’t celebrate this sort of thing under our old branding.

  16. Engaging peacefully with someone who history says you should hate is no small task, but sports make it possible.

    Oh, please, wake up. The Olympics are a big government and corporate event used for propaganda and profit.

    It’s about as surprising that the organizer keep the peace as it is that your bank or Disneyland keeps the peace: anything else would be bad for message and profits.

  17. Yeah, tell me how well that ping pong diplomacy has worked out.
    Maybe we can put on our Gadsden flag ball caps and meet in Hong Kong.

  18. OT, city threatens landscaper for performing free services on city’s dilapidated property:

  19. Was thinking about how many times reason would tell us olympics and pro sports were just grifters sucking off government teat.

    Now treated to this. Oh well.

    1. We at TEENreason think libertarianism is a big enough tent to include massive government spending.

    2. Thought the exact same. They were even exceptionally hard on FIFA and the IOC because they’re far more corrupt with a far greater reach than (e.g.) The Green Bay Packers.

  20. FFS, the Iranian people bear no animosity towards the US. It’s their shitbag theocratic fascist government that’s the problem. And sportsball competition won’t change the mullahs end-times view of the relationship between them and the West.

    1. It’s the average Americans end-times view of the relationship between them and the government that frighten us more.
      Look forward to Mrs. Brown’s analysis of growing domestic terrorism and how the FBI can fight it.

  21. Would it have been possible if the US team had any Jewish players on it? I’m guessing, “no”

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  24. I long for the days of the weekly Radley Balko nutpunch as opposed to this woke bullshit.

  25. Yeah. https://www.historynet.com/tell-him-how-things-can-be-between-men-on-this-earth-jesse-owens-unlikely-friendship.htm

    “I am here, Jesse, where it seems there is only the dry sand and the wet blood. I do not fear so much for myself, my friend Jesse, I fear for my woman who is home, and my young son Karl, who has never really known his father.⁣

    My heart tells me, if I be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. If it is so, I ask you something. It is a something so very important to me. It is you go to Germany when this war done, someday find my Karl, and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we not separated by war. I am saying—tell him how things can be between men on this earth.⁣

    If you do this something for me, this thing that I need the most to know will be done, I do something for you, now. I tell you something I know you want to hear. And it is true.⁣

    That hour in Berlin when I first spoke to you, when you had your knee upon the ground, I knew that you were in prayer.⁣

    Then I not know how I know. Now I do. I know it is never by chance that we come together. I come to you that hour in 1936 for purpose more than der Berliner Olympiade.⁣

    And you, I believe, will read this letter, while it should not be possible to reach you ever, for purpose more even than our friendship.⁣

    I believe this shall come about because I think now that God will make it come about. This is what I have to tell you, Jesse.⁣

    I think I might believe in God.⁣
    And I pray to him that, even while it should not be possible for this to reach you ever, these words I write will still be read by you.⁣

    Your brother,⁣


  27. A Joyful Olympics

    The other evening, this commentator watched the entire Olympics from Day1 until its end. Thrilling!

    “What?” you say. “The Olympics still are continuing.”

    True, but those are the Olympics in Tokyo 2021. The Olympics to which this commentator refers are the Olympics in Berlin 1936 captured on film in Leni Riefenstahl’s magnificent documentary, Olympia.

    Berlin 1936. Germany under Adolf Hitler and his Nazis. Germany about to become the enemy in World War Two. The stadium filled to capacity. The various factions from fifty-one countries cheering for their respective teams. A sight to behold. Curiously, the movie promoted our United States more than Riefenstahl’s own Germany. Joy!

    Tokyo 2021. Japan, the former enemy in that same war. An empty stadium. Many athletes deemed physically unfit from a plague fabricated by the Chinese with American assistance. American athletes withdrawing, citing mental strain; others displaying rage. Sadness.

    The contrast is startling. What have we direct American descendants from 1936 done to ourselves?

    1. What have we direct American descendants from 1936 done to ourselves?

      Not that I’m directly pointing to any outcomes, but in 1936 the number of non-native Americans living in this country was 10M people or ~10% of the population. In 2021 the number of non-native Americans living in this country is 45M or ~15% of the population. Moreover, to say the immigrant-to-native fertility rate from 1936 to now of 1.5:1 would be exceptionally conservative. There’s a pretty solid case to be made that a significant portion, if not a majority of the current population are not ‘direct American descendants from 1936’.

      Again, not saying that immigrants give fewer shits about America’s culture and heritage or that as we embrace international diversity domestically people give fewer shits about international diversity internationally or anything. Just say’n.

  28. I respectfully disagree with the sentiment of this article. This has been the most divisive and derisive Olympics in my 50+ years of watching. Not watching and unless things change, I do not plan to watch any others.

    1. Yup. Personally, the only reason this hasn’t been the most divisive and derisive Olympics of my last couple decades of watching is because I’ve watched so little of it. And that’s in multiple dimensions; sports that they didn’t even used to air have turned into platforms for NBC to preach. As someone pointed out above, table tennis didn’t even used to air. Then just the medal mathes aired. Now, matches that exactly two people, their coaches, and their parents give a shit about air with NBC bungling the coverage and preaching over air constantly.

  29. This take is just too boomer for me. Of course ordinary people aren’t as crazy as their governments, but you can’t pretend that you can build bridges with good people run by poor governments. That’s why we sanction hostile nations despite the fact that we could probably get along in another context.

    Even the Nazis shared Christmas with us.

  30. Reason

    “Olympics build bridges where the government can’t!”

    Also Reason

    “Olympic athletes should just quit on their country at their convenience and people shouldn’t get mad at athletes kneeling on their flag”

    Iran hangs people on a crane as is if they were dogs. American athletes could have turned their back on the Iranian anthem as sign of protest. They didn’t. They minded the occasion and didn’t hold the athletes and the entire people to the sins of their government. Decorum, tact, good sportsmanship, not allowing passion and your agenda to override all sense of diplomacy – these things foster good will and create bridges.

    Imagine that. Imagine NOT burning down buildings, not forming mobs against people, not creating an enemy out of an entire profession and people (police, white people, even Asians) and charging them with built in racism. Imagine an Olympic athlete behaving like decent human beings in an international event involving multiple nations, and not an BLM fanatic, who might kneel at the podium, make every interview about social justice, and refuse to shake hands with Jews and Europeans. “Your country is racist and an apartheid state”

    Yes, look at how Olympics built bridges. That’s the result of people choosing to behave in a certain way. If most athletes used to occasion to address their social grievances and shove down their agenda on everyone’s throat, no bridges will be built. I’d like to see Reason produce editorials that criticizes anthem protests as divisive and toxic in spite of 1A rights, which is their default position on big tech. I’m not holding my breath.

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