Can’t separate the Olympics from global politics

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on February 19, 2018. It can also be found online here.

I love the Olympics, in part because they seem to defy reality as a place where dreams really do come true.

But geopolitics doesn’t stop while the Olympics are on – countries always use the Games to jostle for power, position, and prestige. Hitler’s 1936 Games come to mind, or the U.S. decision not to attend the 1980 Games in Moscow, and the subsequent Soviet decision to skip the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

The geopolitical maneuvering continues at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang – not surprising considering they’re so close to the DMZ that separates the North from South Korea. Tensions are high, as the North’s missile and nuclear tests have grown in number, range, and quality, poised to threaten not just Seoul and Tokyo, but the U.S. homeland as well.

Which is why the top story out of Pyeongchang is the fast-moving diplomacy between North and South Korea. Kim Jong Un’s sister attended the Opening Ceremonies and invited the South Korean president to talks in Pyongyang, an invitation he appears ready to accept. A meeting like this hasn’t happened in 11 years.

One big reason for the sudden thaw in frosty relations is the invitation – and acceptance – of the North Koreans to join the Pyeongchang Games under a “Team Korea” flag. Tweny-two North Korean athletes are participating in figure skating, short track speed-skating, and cross-country and Alpine skiing.

And women’s hockey: 12 North Koreans have joined a newly combined women’s hockey team with South Korea. The deal meant that a dozen North Korean women were added to the South Korean team’s roster, and three North Koreans will play in each game.

It also meant that some South Korean hockey players lost their hard-earned spots to North Korean women. There was public backlash; South Koreans rightly questioned why the women were forced to form “Team Korea.” The team’s coach described how difficult it was to crush the dreams of players who “deserve to go to the Olympics,” especially to sacrifice for a “political statement.”

But, if the Olympics teach us anything, it’s that some sacrifices are worth it. As skeptical as we should be regarding North Korea, when we consider the consequences of another Korean war, there’s no question this was the right move. And those bearing the unfortunate anguish and considerable pain at these last-minute changes are enduring them for the noblest reason: peace. And so we should all applaud Team Korea, even the athletes from North Korea.

American Vic Wild is another story. A talented Alpine snowboarder from Washington, when he felt slighted by American snowboard officials, he married his Russian girlfriend in 2011 and became a Russian citizen. Wearing Russian red at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Wild won two gold medals and was soon thereafter awarded the Order for Merit to the Fatherland by President Vladimir Putin.

Of course, Wild’s not the first (or only) athlete to use marriage to compete for another country. But he is the most brazen about his financial motives, and the country in question has the world’s worst record for Olympic doping, commits and abets war crimes, and regularly seeks to harm the United States.

In Russia, “they expect you to win,” Wild has said, because “you get paid to do it. It’s not just for you anymore. It’s also for the people that are paying for you man. They put a lot on you.”

On February 24, 2014, the same day Wild was gripping and grinning with Putin for his Russian “Fatherland” award – Putin was invading and annexing Crimea, later to extend the war deeper into Ukraine. Putin’s Russia also supports barrel bombs and delivers indiscriminate air strikes on civilians in Syria, and has directly attacked American democratic institutions. Not to mention the guy that blew the whistle on the widespread, state-sponsored Russian doping program at Sochi just said he fully expects Putin to have him executed.

Vic Wild may be something less than a villain, but by turning his back on America to represent Russian dopers, bad guys, and war criminals, he’s spent too much time in the gutter to ever come out clean.

It’s hard to root against anyone at the Olympics, but Wild makes a strong case.

It’s pretty obvious who to root for: one represents a mob-state for money, while the other has given something precious for peace.

 

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