Competing for the diplomacy gold medal - Monocolumn | Monocle


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27 July 2012

As Olympic athletes limber up to start the London games and director Danny Boyle puts the finishing touches to his pastoral-themed opening ceremony, there is another tranche of players gearing up for the games. They are a little less lithe, not nearly as toned, but every bit as competitive as the Olympians themselves; the diplomats and premiers of the world using the its largest sporting jamboree to their advantage.

London is pulsing with convoys of sleek black cars, choppers and even Zephyrs, which hover and hum above the city on high alert – 120 leaders are thought to be turning out for this evening’s opening ceremony.

Of course, they are all here to sit track-side, pool-side and pitch-side to cheer on their nation’s finest athletes. The savvy among them will do a little bit of negotiation while they’re at it.

As we know, the Olympics are about sport but they are always wildly political too. And these games come at a particularly pertinent time. As leaders hammer out resolutions at the UN Security Council and secure yet more bailouts in Brussels, the games provide a soft power opportunity for them to firm up alliances and make strong symbolic gestures. The eyes of the world are on London, supposedly watching sporting history while our politicians are in a microcosm playing a global version of high-level chess.

It’s also a time for discreet chats and all-important rapport building. What better time for Germany’s Angela Merkel to have quiet words with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda than during a spot of Olympic shot-put or pigeon-shooting? Or for Vladimir Putin (if he comes) to consult his pal China on how they can really dig their heels in on a Chapter Seven veto on Syria at the UN. Meanwhile, their most agile gymnasts will perform gravity-defying acts of balance and skill – what better distraction.

Of course, there are serious benefits to playing host; one nation that’s reaping rewards is the beleaguered UK. As its politicians contemplate one of the most sustained double-dip recessions in history, they are also on a bilateral meeting marathon with the world’s most ascendant economies.

Under the guise of talking basketball, footy and syncronised swimming, David Cameron has already met with Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff – the two posed for photographs on the steps of number 10. Cameron is certainly making the most of the heavyweights in town; he is to hold 17 summits in London over the next month as the government attempts to raise at least £1bn (€1.2bn) of inward investment for the UK.

He even took the time to meet Mitt Romney who is in town with his wife Ann. Incidentally, she co-owns a dressage horse, Rafalca, which will be competing in the Equestrian competitions in Greenwich Park.

So the biggest soft power event begins. London is a fulcrum of power – unlike the Chinese Olympics in 2008 that were streamlined, controlled, orchestrated and censored; these will be a celebration of social democracy. Expert protests, debate and nuance; passion, conviction and foibles.

Oh, and expect some sport too. I’ve heard it’s going to be rather good.


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