By Jerry Pacheco
I have a soft spot in my heart when it is Olympics season. As a young boy, I remember watching in awe as legendary Olympic athletes such as Edwin Moses, Bill Johnson, Bruce Jenner, and Scott Hamilton dominated their events and won gold. I used to stay up late after the evening news to watch tape-delayed coverage of events to see both the stars and the occasional underdog competing for medals. I loved the patriotism, self-sacrifice of the amateur athletes, and the whole spectacle of the Games.
Watching the 2018 Winter Olympic Games held in PyeongChang, South Korea, several thoughts came to mind. In the post-World War II period, the Olympic Games became an extension of the Cold War between the Western countries and their allies, and the Soviet Bloc. It seemed that the Olympics were a monumental life-and-death contest between the two different factions, with each side striving to rack up as many medals as possible to affirm the superiority of their political and economic systems. The number of medals won was evidence to the world of a country’s power and glory.
Unfortunately, politics completely dominated the Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and the 1980 Moscow Olympics were boycotted by the U.S. and 66 other countries in protest. In retaliation, the Soviets and another 16 mostly Eastern-Bloc nations boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
After the political one-upmanship, and after the breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991, it seemed that the Olympic Games would reach their stride and the East versus West element would disappear. However, this year, this type of political struggle seems to have returned. In an unprecedented move, at the end of last year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned Russia from the 2018 Games, due to the widespread doping scandal of Russian athletes. Russian athletes who tested clean were allowed to compete, as an “Olympian Athlete from Russia,” but the Russian flag and national anthem were banned. Any medals won by these athletes would not count towards Russia’s historical total. Russian politicians vehemently criticized the action as being purely political, hinting that the IOC was under Western control.
Meanwhile, in what is being viewed as a purely political move, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un used the 2018 Games to help diffuse tensions and the corner he had backed himself into by threatening missile attacks on the U.S. and its allies. He made an overture to send 22 North Korean athletes to compete in South Korea, which was accepted. North and South Korean athletes marched under a unified Korean flag and competed in sports such as hockey as one team. In addition, North Korea sent 200 North Korean cheerleaders to scream for the Korean team and to spread charm at events. Not surprisingly, they were one of the non-sport attractions at the games. Although nobody expects North Korea to drastically alter its nuclear policies, at least the Olympics were a respite in the decades-old tension in the region.
The Olympics are the only time many Americans will gain insight into other countries’ culture and people. A lot of the feature stories show that people around the world are similar to Americans in their drive to succeed, self-sacrifice, and having pride in their country. The Games are great in exposing Americans to sports that they would not normally watch or follow. How many of us would ever have known that the sport of curling exists and is popular in other countries and in certain geographic regions in the U.S.? How many of us would be normally glued to the television set watching ice skating if not for the Games?
For a host country, it is an opportunity to showcase its own cultures and people to the world. Hosting an Olympic Games is also a rite of passage in demonstrating that your country has the financial wherewithal and organizational skills to host the world – even though a country can be left with billions in debt and unused Olympic facilities after the Games are over. Many people doubted that Brazil could pull off the 2016 Rio Olympics, but it did with the pride of being the first South American nation to host the Games.
So, as the athletes of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games return to their homes, let’s realize that politics and one-upmanship will probably always be a part of the Olympic Games. However, these elements notwithstanding, the world again came together peacefully to celebrate achievement in sport and goodwill among nations, even for just a while.