A look at international Games and international bonding claims
by Aaron Grierson
For all the negative reviews we â€” fans, naysayers and the general disinterested public â€” give sports as an industry, it is hard to deny that they bring communities, and often whole countries, together. Much of Europe and South America, most notably the UK and Brazil, love their football (soccer for you North Americans), Canada loves its hockey and the USA loves its American football. And while some nations may be brought together for a fleeting moment to play soccer or hockey across a border, I can’t help but wonder about the actual degree of bonding that takes place at these international games.
Neverminding the regular, perennial sporting events where teams clash on a monthly basis, what I’m more skeptical about are major international events. The matter has been sloshing around in my head ever since the midsummer Pan-Am(erican) Games. Especially since they were held in the Greater Toronto Area this year not far from my humble abode. Â They operate the same way the Olympics do, in that the host of the games changes every time the games are held.
Even if the athletes share a beer, or twelve, where does that leave the rest of us as far as the international connection is concerned? Apart from watching those same Twitter feeds as they develop for a week. We came, we paid, we watched. Ideally, we enjoyed too, but I’m still left with the question â€” so what?
The Olympics function on the same premise, that we’re somehow globally united for a couple of weeks vicariously through our best athletes, but does it really amount to anything beyond some trophies, hours of television and a few positive, nonviolent reports in the media? Not so far as I can see. The actual cultural exchange seems to be quite minimal. If anything, weâ€™re only given a glimpse into some popular facet of the host’s culture, like at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics where the mascots were ripped off of indigenous spirit animals. Unfortunately, the mascots were mere husks, or otherwise shallow misrepresentations, of their true cultural significance. And as a result they became symbols less of meaningful cultural exchange and more of a catalyst for activistism over cultural misappropriation.
Either way, such a display, no matter how fantastically presented, seems to have had a short retention period, because, no, I don’t count that pair of winter gloves with the Olympic logo on it to have much intercultural significance. But then again, I make for a poor consumerist.
It might sound like I detest international sporting events. This is far from the case. I might prefer to play certain sports and find others unwatchable, but I like a good game as much as the next guy. I just don’t feel sports bring countries together in any deep, meaningful way. Sure, we’ll do it again in another four years out of habit or obligation. We can’t even cite commercial gain as a reason.
Maybe the problem is less sports and more the scale. Maybe it’s just hard to unite two whole countries in a meaningful way. Especially when you look at a country like Canada, which only has half of a vague idea of what it means to be Canadian. That said, nations have been trying to unite over athletic and cultural events for years. For example, the concept of twinning two cities has been around for centuries, but it really only developed in its present, legislative form in the post World War II era.
The twinning of cities is when two cities, typically in different countries, sign a diplomatic agreement which is intended to benefit both parties economically, primarily by way of trade and tourism. Â As the modern concept of twinned cities really ignited from the ashes of the Second World War, any sort of financial support the cities could offer each other would have been an obvious boon, but there would have also been an element of shared tragedy. As such, the primary focus was originally to foster reconciliation between two former foes. In more recent decades, trade and tourism have become the reasons for one place to support another.
One of the more curious examples of twinning was a three-way agreement between Coventry in England, Stalingrad (at the time) in Russia and Dresden in Germany. This was a rather iconic reconciliatory move, as all three cities suffered heavy bombing throughout the WWII.Â Another more lighthearted twinning is that of Olney in the UK and Liberal city, Kansas, who joined together in 1950 and run an annual joint Pancake Day Race. To date it is the only known connection of its kind, as well as, hopefully, one of the most delicious.
My hometown in Canada is an interesting example because it’s not a very big city, nor is it a cultural powerhouse like nearby Toronto, but even still it has two twin cities: Itabashi in Japan and Apeldoorn in the Netherlands. The agreement with Apeldoorn is borne primarily out of the connection between the World War veterans in both locations and Canada’s role in the liberation of the Netherlands. This continues to be a touchstone of this particular cultural connection for the current generation, especially since most of the shared events are various veteran related honorariums overseen by separate councils in each city. The original signed agreement has been scanned and uploaded, should anyone be interested in reading it. 
The cityâ€™s twinning with Itabashi is primarily honourary. The closest thing to having a war connection sprang from the changes to the Japanese city during the course of their rebuilding after WWII. In addition to hosting trips for youth and guided tours for tourists, they built a bridge in their town with our name in return for us naming a street after them. We have had origami and sushi lessons, there have been many musical showcases sponsored by Japan, some of which included the Burlington Teen Tour Band, but also featuring traditional Japanese drumming, additionally the local art gallery regularly displays Japanese art.Â  Last year was the 25th anniversary of the twinning. There were articles published looking back on the founding of the relationship, as well as catalogue events that ran over the course of the year. Â It was pointed out that despite all of the diversity in Canada, there are huge cultural gaps between some emigrant groups and long time inhabitants, which the twinning was originally intended to help close. I canâ€™t help but wonder how much of an impact the city twinning has made in this area.
We’re at a bit of a loss. Between language barriers and the speed at which modern society moves, true connection may only be fostered between individuals, but this may also wither as quickly as a daisy in a drought. Finding hard numbers to help identify the positive results of city twinning and sporting events is incredibly difficult. Even so, the claim of economic benefit, something that would be a very serious boon in todayâ€™s world, is hard for a layman like myself to spot, and equally hard for him to Google. That said, the American-centric organisation Sister Cities International, founded by former American president Dwight D. Eisenhower, keeps track of American twin cities and recently released a report of their economic impact in 2014.Â The organisationâ€™s website also serves as a database to locate any city twinned with an American one, providing a general overview of their relationship but few specific numbers. Perhaps this city twinning scheme is a municipal expense tolerated by participating cities in the hopes that the local populations take the initiative and utilise the international opportunity. After all, a city is not a feeling thing, at least as far as we understand them, and certainly as a governmental institution, it is far from emotional. So if it cannot care, and the people either don’t care or don’t know, is there really a serious connection just because someone says that there is?
I think it’s a hard case to argue yes. Perhaps sports fall more under the broadly enjoyed and consumed category, but I think that the connection is more effervescent, as twin cities have the advantage of being politically recognised as bonded, and have physical paperwork to prove it. Bonded or no, how about a different perspective on Japanese culture? Different from the technological or topical entertainment, something more intimate, more deeply rooted in the human condition. If sporting events can trend for days on social media, why not cultural exchange opportunities? Cities have it within their power to make things happen, and should potentially consider investing more time and money into why these twin city events go unattended save for a niche crowd. Sports may be considered a universal language, why not make the language of cultural exchange another universal? And perhaps, one day, equally cared about? Sure, it might mean more paperwork.
I, perhaps, naÃ¯vely imagine we live in a world where there are more people that love to read than there are that love sports. At least, I hope this is the case. Maybe your best friend’s favourite athlete is an avid reader, or maybe he’s a hardcore gamer when he’s not sporting. Gaming, absurd as it might sound to some, has entered the competitive realm, where the winners take home a substantial cash pot. It is definitely an international phenomenon, becoming classified as â€œe-sportsâ€ where each game is its own â€œsport,â€ and could be used as a starting point for international cultural exchange; especially among youth, who make up the majority, if not the entirety, of participants and spectators. Heck, competitive reading is actually a thing that happens. When one looks for competitive anything, the possibilities one can find are nearly endless. Life, across all cultures, is composed of and flavoured by the things we do while we’re alive, a perpetual buffet of delicious potential laid out on a rainbow of platters just beyond the reach of your armchair. All it might take to make a new connection is to stand up.
Â ‘The Origins of Town Twinning’,Â The City of Inverness Town Twinning Committee, 2008
Â ‘Global Economic Impact of Sister Cities International Released in New Study Totals Hundreds of Millions of Dollars’, Sister Cities International, 2015
Aaron Grierson is a senior articles editor with the magazine.