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South Korean runner carrying the Olympic torch in Tongyeong
South Korean runner carrying the Olympic torch in Tongyeong
Bertrand Hauger

-Analysis-

PARIS — Compete, don't kill.

The idea that peace might be achieved through sporting is an old paradox. Pitting athletes and countries against each other in a non-lethal — and cathartic — demonstration of skills, is at the very core of the Olympic ideal, going all the way back to ancient Greece.

The timing and location of the upcoming Winter Games, in PyeongChang, South Korea, "could not be better — or worse," as the South China Morning Post puts it, with rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula as Pyongyang's young leader Kim Jong-un pursues nuclear weapons and regularly trades threats with U.S. President Donald Trump. This morning's announcement that North Korea will send a delegation to the 2018 Winter Games, resuming official talks after more than two years is at the very least a "cautious breakthrough," as CNN described the news.

Speaking to the U.S. network, Duyeon Kim, a senior research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum hinted that there had "always been a price tag" for the North's participation, in the form of concessions "under the table or upfront." That now appears to include a reinstating of a military hotline between the nations, reunions of families divided between North and South, and the possibility of more lasting peace talks.

The international event has often been used as a metaphorical podium to prove a political point or sow dissension.

Still, before jumping the gun, it would be wise to put this apparent Olympic ceasefire into historical context. Indeed, we can look back to the very roots of the Games: In the 9th century BC, the "Olympic Truce" meant that, in a war-torn Peloponnese, athletes and spectators could travel safely to participate in or attend the Olympic Games, before returning to their homes. Which makes it, as the United Nations puts it, the world's longest lasting peace accord.

At the opening ceremony of the Winter Games Lillehammer in 1994, then-IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch voiced his desire to rekindle the Olympic Truce in modern times: "Please stop the fighting. Please stop the killing. Please drop your guns," he said, as the deadly siege of the Bosnian city of Sarajevo raged.

In theory, the Olympic charter states that "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." But in practice, with the world's attention riveted on the friendly show of force, the Games are all but neutral ground. Beyond the somewhat naive idea that sporting events can serve as a surrogate for warfare, the international event has often been used as a metaphorical podium to prove a political point or sow dissension. Think of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics; think of Black Power fists raised in Mexico City in 1968; of the 1972 Munich Games, when Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes; of the 1980 Games in Moscow, which more than 60 countries chose to boycott to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

But in equal measure, competition can effectively foster reconciliation. In 2000, Cathy Freeman, after winning the Gold medal in the 400 meters in Sydney, draped herself in both the Australian and Aboriginal flags — arguably achieving more for national peace in 49.11 seconds and a victory lap than authorities managed in months of negotiation.

The Games are all but neutral ground.

But it was also at the Sydney Games that the world saw signs of an earlier Korean rapprochement, as both delegations entered the stadium side by side, under the same flag, for the first time.

It is also worth remembering that one of the strongest images from the Summer Olympics in Rio, just two years ago, was a selfie taken by two North and South Korea gymnasts. We know what has happened since. So while the world applauds this latest moment of Winter Olympic harmony, we should not forget that sports will never take the place of politics — and that Cold Wars die hard.

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