2018 Winter Olympics: Politics At PyeongChang

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It’s that time of the decade again — the 16 days are here when you watch the sports that would cause you to throw your remote through the TV on any other day.  I am of course talking about the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. But this year the quadrennial pastime of caring about curling and figure-skating for two weeks has taken on a different tone. As waves of nationalism and populism march across the United States, United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, plus the return of North Korea to the Winter Olympics for the first time since 2010, this year’s games are not business as usual.  As these cultural factors clash, it seemed a good idea to take a look at the societal context of this year’s Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

What does this mean for North Korea? Many millennials will find it hard to believe that North Korea has actually been a regular participant in the summer and winter Olympic games going back to its first appearance at the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, aside from when the country boycotted the Summer Games in 1988 in Seoul and the 1984 games in Los Angeles. This runs quite contrary to the image many people in the U.S., young and old alike, currently hold of the oppressive regime. How can a country that has been threatening nuclear war these past 12 months set down the rattling saber and compete for 16 days of friendly competition?

The simple answer is that this is merely keeping up appearances as the petulant and vein leader Kim Jong-un desperately tries to keep North Korea a regular participant in the international conversation. A telltale sign of the attention-hungry tendencies of Kim Jong-un is the fact that instead of the Korean People’s Army parade being held as scheduled on April 25, the regime instead showed off its military might the day before the opening of the Olympics. For all of the seemingly civil gestures North Korea has taken, such as sending singer Hyon Song-wol and Head of State Kim Yong-nam to the games, all Kim Jong-un is attempting to do is make his military state appear still culturally relevant and less oppressive in the eyes of the world.

The upside? Hopefully all of the pageantry and round-the-clock events can keep Kim Jong-un’s finger off the button for another 16 days. If only there was a way to distract our Supreme Leader with some pretty flags and fun games.

How will everyone see America? Given America’s, let’s just say “interesting," past 12 months, international eyes have already been on the U.S. this year. But it’s not all bad, because many of those eyes will also be checking their phones to see what our president says about the rest of the countries as they process into the game. It must have came as a shock to them that he didn't mock anybody's flag in real time. 

It is also a fairly safe bet that there will be some sort of anthem kneeling level protests taking place at some point in this year’s games. Skier Lindsey Vonn said in a recent interview with CNN that she will gladly represent the United States in Seoul, but “not the president.” Vonn is among the list of several athletes who have publicly stated that they would not accept any invitations to the White House after the games. To add fuel to this fire, Vice President Mike Pence and Ivanka Trump are leading the presidential delegation at the Olympics, as well as attending some of the sporting events. Coming down the slope and staring straight into the Trump lineage could make for an interesting moment and possibly lead to some must-see TV.  Even without direct confrontation, this could result in some interesting signs from fans or outfit choices by the athletes, sponsors be damned.

But the possibility of a social disturbance is not assured. One of the athletes who said they would decline a invitation to the White House, Gus Kenworthy, said he would not be participating in any form of protest at the games, despite the fact that Kenworthy is gay and a fierce critic of Pence. This could also be a chance for the U.S. to show the rest of the world that we are capable of not embarrassing ourselves on an international stage – that we are more than our president. This is a big chance to redeem the country, however partially, in the eyes of the world.

However, this does not seem likely as USA Today reported last Wednesday that a tiff was ignited between Pence and figure skater Adam Rippon over whether or not the vice president invited Rippon, who is openly gay, for a one-on-one conversation. Rippon cited Pence’s support for gay-conversion therapy in 2000 as a reason he would not “go out of [his] way" to meet with Pence, who Rappon said has "gone out of [his] way to not only show that [he isn't] a friend of a gay person but that [he thinks] that they're sick."  It's not even a week after the lighting of the torch and things are already heating up at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The Rest of the World: The U.S. is far from the only country that experienced waves of nationalism and populism at home. As the United Kingdom buckles down in Brexit negotiations and France deals with the aftermath of a narrow defeat of nationalism by Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 election, this will also be a time for other nations to make a statement on an international soapbox. This will actually be a good moment for Americans to get some perspective as many citizens breathe a sigh of relief that they are safe from politics and football intermingling for another six months. It will also be an opportunity to note that the U.S. is not the center of the universe, as Bob Costas and company will fill you in on the troubles befalling every country as they parade into the games in what is meant to be a joyous occasion but usually just ends in a game of “whose genocide was worse?”

Another country that will be hard to beat in terms of international disgrace will be Russia, whose Olympic program was rocked by a doping scandal in 2014. However, in a set of last-minute appeals, 28 Russian athletes had their bans overturned and will be allowed to participate in the games. This has already resulted in raised eyebrows and hushed murmurings during any event in which Russia is participating, effectively taking the heat off of everyone else.

Let the Games Begin. The PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games have already begun and so far they are not off to an Atlanta 1996 start. This is most certainly a moment to be cherished in America, because all the way until Feb. 25 you can turn on NBC at most any hour and not have to hear about the president’s latest tweet or who he’s banning from the country this week. Just throw away your remote for the next couple weeks and enjoy some good curling.