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PyeongChang And The Slippery Sport Of Olympic Geopolitics

Curling in PyeongChang on Feb. 8
Curling in PyeongChang on Feb. 8

-Analysis-

The PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games finally kicked off Thursday with the riveting-if-baffling sport of curling and a first victory for hosts South Korea. But all eyes will be on the official opening ceremony tomorrow, especially since a disproportionate dose of the attention for this edition will be focused off the ice and snow.

Coming in the wake of nuclear threats between the U.S. and North Korea, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been touting the Games as the "Peace Olympics." Athletes from the North and South will be marching together, under a blue-and-white flag representing a united Korea, for the first time since the Asian Winter Games of 2007. In addition, the women's ice-hockey squad will be the first ever combined Korean Olympic team.

Word also came this week that Kim Yo-jung, North Korea leader Kim Jong-un's sister, will be part of a high-level Olympic delegation at tomorrow'sceremonies, making her the first member of North Korea's ruling family to visit the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Ms. Kim is expected to meet with President Moon on Saturday. All of this seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago, when Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump were busy boasting about their buttons.

Could sports really pave the way for lasting peace between two countries still technically at war with each other? It was the dream of Pierre de Coubertin, the father of modern Olympic Games, that "athleticism" would help harmony between nations, eager as he was to rekindle the spirit of the Ancient Olympic Games.

Tantamount to a Trojan Horse tactic.

But as Julien Sorez, a French sports historian, notes in an article published in Le Figaro, the "sacred truce" between Ancient Greek cities was actually respected "less for moral reasons than geopolitical ones, namely to allow athletes to travel between the cities." More than two millennia later, little has changed, and Olympic Games are at least as much a "geopolitical weapon" now as they used to be.

Writing in the South China Morning Post, David Josef Volodzko argued that the presence of North Korean pop singers in the South for the celebrations was tantamount to a Trojan Horse tactic, and "likely to be the first of many soft-power salvoes aimed at stealing the South's limelight." Others, meanwhile, have noted that the North's PR operation is made easier by the fact that PyeongChang and Pyongyang (the North's capital) are such similar names that you could easily get confused and believe the Games are actually taking place in North Korea.

Writing in The Korean Times this morning, Seoul-based writer Ned Forney also denounces what he says has "become a geopolitical event so hijacked and manipulated that the athletes seem to be only a sideshow." He adds: "History books years from now may record the next few weeks as the calm before the storm. I hope not, but unless I've totally misread Kim Jong-un and his regime, North Korea has no intention of living peacefully with its neighbor to the South, or any other country."

In Le Figaro, Sorez writes that "the risk is to see what we'd like to see. In 1936, the fact that the Nazis had hosted the 1936 Olympics had reassured part of the public opinion." And we all know how that ended.

Hopefully, history won't repeat itself in the geopolitical arena. Curling is anyone's guess.

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Image of Colombian President Gustavo Petro speaking during a press conference in Buenos Aires on Jan 14, 2023

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Manuel Cortina/ZUMA
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