On Feb. 9 the 2018 Winter Olympics officially began. This year the Games are being held in Pyeongchang County, South Korea. This is the first time a Winter Olympics has ever been hosted in the country. These Games are featuring 102 events in 15 sports, involving nearly 3,000 athletes from 92 National Olympic Committees and costing nearly $13 million.
Contrary to popular opinion, sports and money are not the two most relevant conversations to be had about these Games. If you don’t believe me, you’re wrong.
These Games have provided a microcosmic view of the current global political landscape, and this display has been nothing short of fascinating.
On the plus side, the 2018 Winter Olympics have featured remarkable displays of athleticism from all ages. Seventeen-year-old Americans Red Gerard and Chloe Kim each won gold in snowboarding and 37-year-old Norwegian Marit Bjoergen won the 11th medal of her Olympic career when she took silver in the 15 km event. But it would be ignorant to neglect the political connotations of these Games.
For starters, these are the first Games with a Nigerian team represented. This is a Nigerian team composed entirely of women, no less. Nigeria as a nation has an alarming history of neglecting women’s rights, so their representation at these Games is both an indicator of and an opportunity for women’s empowerment.
These Games also featured a debut of an Olympic team from Kosovo, which has significant implications for the hotly debated resurgence of an East-West political divide. Kosovo declared its national independence from Serbia in 2008, but despite being recognized by the United Nations as an international governing body, their independence is not endorsed by several of the world’s super-powers.
Most notably, Kosovo is not recognized as a state by Russia.
Russia, the nation spearheading the insurgence of several eastern nations against the west and accused of interfering in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, was banned from competing in this year’s Games due to a state-run doping scandal. To say the very least, these circumstances have not pleased Putin.
Regionally, the lead-up to these Games was severely affected by the 2017-2018 missile crisis and ongoing tensions between North and South Korea. Several nations threated to boycott the event entirely if their safety was not ensured and it was not until January that North Korea engaged in dialogue with its Southern counterpart, the first high-level dialogue between the nations in the last two years, and agreed to compete.
Needless to say, viewers were shocked to see Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jon Un, shaking hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during the opening ceremony. Athletes from both nations then marched together under flags showing a unified Korea, a move thought to indicate thawing of decades-long hostilities between the two countries.
Unfortunately, the peaceful connotation of North Korea’s presence at the 2018 Winter Olympics has been soured by the sudden, unexpected departure of the sole North Korean International Olympic Committee (IOC) representative on Sunday morning. This move came amid threats from North Korea that the United States and Donald Trump will be destroyed by a “nuclear holocaust”, after the recent publication of the U.S. 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.
Speaking of the U.S., this nation has also dropped the ball—or, more accurately, lost a ski—at these Games.
Adam Rippon and Gus Kenworthy are both representing the U.S. at the 2018 Winter Olympics. These are the first openly gay men to compete for the States and guess who was sent to represent their delegation? None other than current Vice President Mike Pence. Pence has been a long-time critic of same-sex marriage and is openly opposed to laws prohibiting workplace discrimination against members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Perhaps a small amount of solace can be found in Kenworthy taking to social media to speak out against the hypocrisy. During the opening ceremony, he posted a picture on Instagram of himself and Rippon embracing, captioned “The #OpeningCeremony is a wrap and the 2018 Winter Olympic Gaymes are officially under way! I feel incredibly honored to be here in Korea competing for the US and I’m so proud to be representing the LGBTQ community alongside this amazing guy! Eat your heart out, Pence. #TeamUSA #TeamUSGay.”
We were all made aware of the power that social media can have last year with the rise of the #MeToo movement, and its ripple effect has not escaped these Games.
Less than a week into the Games, the #MeToo movement surfaced when American snowboarder Shaun White was questioned about allegations of sexual harassment leveled against him in 2016. These questions were asked in a press conference immediately following his gold medal winning performance in the men’s halfpipe event.
White fumbled his response to the line of questioning stating that he was there “to talk about the Olympics, not gossip.” He has since appeared on the “Today” show and has been recorded in the New York Times apologizing for the use of the word ‘gossip.’
Despite these apologies, White still used the platform of Olympic press coverage to minimize sexual harassment charges and undermine the issue of objectification and assault in the workplace. It is worth noting that during the press conference White did not call upon any of the female journalists in the room.
Like it or not, these Games have been politically charged and, without even mentioning the results to date, thoroughly unsettling. The Games have been running for two weeks and already we have seen clashes on issues including human rights, nuclear arms, LGBTQ+ rights and sexual assault.
These Games have exposed underlying conflicts between nations, created media turmoil and provoked advocates for several international movements, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights and #MeToo, to name a few.
Honestly, there is so much going on at the Games this year that I don’t understand this conception that the Winter Olympics are just about sports.