Chinese Cultural Minister Luo Shugang Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and South Korean Culture, Sports, and Tourism Minister Do Jong-hwan
Chinese Cultural Minister Luo Shugang Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and South Korean Culture, Sports, and Tourism Minister Do Jong-hwan

Think about it. The next three Olympic Games will be held in Asia:

  • 2018 Winter Olympics: PyeongChang, South Korea
  • 2020 Summer Olympics: Tokyo, Japan
  • 2022 Winter Olympics: Beijing, China

In the history of the modern Olympiad, the majority of host cities selected for both Summer and Olympic Games have been in Europe. In the period of 1896 to 1952, only three of the first 20 Olympiads were held outside Europe, the others in the USA. From 1956 to 2016, the diversity of host cities improved, with only 50% of the Olympiads held in Europe.

But for the first time, three Olympiads in a row will be held in Asia. In the world of diplomacy, that smells like opportunity. So when the culture ministers of Japan, China and South Korea met in Kyoto for their annual meeting of minds in August, 2017, they announced that they will organize joint events to spread the depth and beauty of East Asian culture within the three countries in connection to the upcoming Olympiads in Asia.

While the specifics of the plan are to be determined by an “experts’ body” to be set up, it was agreed that five cities in each of the three countries would be identified as locales for these cultural exhibitions and exchanges. In fact, according to this Japan Today article, this is an expansion of an initiative called the Culture Cities of East Asia Program, that had started in 2014. China’s Changsha and South Korea’s Daegu are already hosting such events. Next year, Japan’s Kanazawa will be host.

Other areas of partnership cited in The Japan Times include:

  • Efforts to strengthen copyright protections for cultural products
  • Continued trilateral dialogue on preserving the intangible cultural heritage of all three countries.
  • Support of UNESCO‚Äôs International Research Center for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region, which works to protect, preserve and promote intangible culture such as traditional music, dance, performing arts and craftsmanship.

Examples of “intangible cultural heritage” in Japan would be noh, washoku (traditional Japanese food), and washi (traditional hand-made paper).

With so much geo-political tension in the region, exacerbated by the sabre-rattling of North Korea, there is a belief that diplomacy, through the promotion of the respective nations’ cultural heritage, can promote the cause of peace, according to Kyoto mayor, Daisaku Kadokawa.

The East Asian region shares a long history of exchanges. Here in Kyoto, you can see and feel the cultural elements of the region. The power of culture can help bring the region together, and lead to peace.

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

vera-caslavska_mexico-city

Vera Caslavska was dominant at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. She won gold in the all arounds, the vault, asymmetric bars and the floor exercise. She also took silver in the beam and team event. When Caslavska was about to go up to receive her gold medal in the floor exercise, the famed Mexican Hat Dance performance, she learned quite abruptly that the floor exercise score of the Soviet Union’s Larisa Petrik was increased, resulting in a tie for gold.

When Caslavska and Petrik stood side by side, listening to the national anthem of the Soviet Union, Caslavska “stood with her head down and turned away in a silent but unmistakable protest.” The Mexico City Olympics were in October 1968. Earlier that year, Alexander Dubcek was elected First Secretariat of the Communist Part of Czechoslovakia and began a series of reforms that allowed, most significantly, greater autonomy and freedom of speech. In June of that year, journalist, Ludvik Vaculik, published a paper entitled “The Two Thousand Words“, which was a manifesto protesting the increasingly hard-line elements in the government, and calling for increased reforms and openness. Caslavska, who was not one to shy away from controversy, signed the manifesto, along with hundreds of thousands of others.

vera-caslavska_mexico-city_protesting
Vera Caslavska turning her head down and away during the Soviet national anthem, with Soviet co-gold medalist Larisa Petrik standing alongside.

In August of 1968, Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, ordered 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks into Czechoslovakia to squash the so-called Prague Spring. As a result of the invasion, Caslavska lost access to her training facilities just weeks prior to the beginning of the Mexico City Olympics. Quite famously, Caslavska trained in the forests of Moravia, improvising with potato sacks for weights and logs for beams.

In other words, Caslavaska likely took the Soviet invasion personally. When she returned to Prague with her treasure trove of medals garnered in Mexico, she did not place them in her trophy case. Instead, Caslavska handed her four gold medals to the Czech leaders of the Prague Spring after they had been deposed by the Soviet Union. This act was not rewarded by the authorities, as Caslavaska immediately fell under a travel ban, and was denied coaching positions. As the obit in The Telegraph summed up, her international career was ended.

It took another six years before Caslavska was finally allowed to work as a gymnastics coach in Czechoslovakia. And when the wall in Berlin fell in 1989, those in power began to look upon Caslavska in a different light. The then new president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, hired Caslavska as an advisor. She was then elected president of the Czech Olympic Committee. UNESCO contributed to the Caslavska revival by recognizing her life’s work in gymnastics with the Pierre de Coubertin International Fair Play Trophy in 1989. Her government honored her with the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit in 1995. And in 1998, she was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

When Vera Caslavska passed away on August 30, 2016, the world remembered a woman of beauty, a gymnast extraordinaire who blended athleticism and balletic grace, and an activist who did not shy from her convictions.