If you tune in at the right moment to the right channel this Friday, you’ll be just in time to watch athletes in matching outfits meander along a path. Crowds will roar. National pride will sizzle. International amity will simmer.
Now, I’m talking about the opening ceremony of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which will take place in South Korea even as the specter of North Korean threats loom in the distance.
But wait — clearly, the Olympics are a time of international cooperation! The two Koreas are even going so far as to march under a “unified Korea” flag at the opening ceremony, according to the BBC. We’ve seen headlines pop up on our phones about blistering-fast talks between North and South Korea to arrange an awkward truce for the games. Even Kim Jong-un’s sister plans to attend.
Things are sounding pretty good, considering how much of last year was overshadowed by threats and missile tests made by North Korea. But at the same time, we must keep in mind that despite the spectacle, the Olympics aren’t an event where athletes end up joining hands and making a toast to cooperation; they’re more a thermometer dipped into the cesspool of international relations.
For one thing, North Korea is planning on showing off its long-range missiles in a parade set to coincide with the start of the Olympics, according to CNN, which doesn’t bode well for peaceful negotiations post-games. And matters have been just as icy on the other side. While some South Koreans are ready to cheer at the sight of two sets of athletes holding up a unified flag, not everyone is happy about this turn of events regarding the North’s participation.
That dissatisfaction has especially made itself known in regards to the Korean unified women’s ice hockey team, the only such combined team, according to the Independent: South Koreans have argued, in over one hundred petitions, that it gives their players a disadvantage. Around the same time, President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating dived under 60 percent for the first time in his presidency.
The reaction and reasoning behind it may sound mildly petty, especially amidst what some are touting as the “Peace Olympics,” but it makes more sense upon remembering that the Olympics are a sporting event, not a promise of harmony. With so many harping excitedly on the possibility of future peace talks, it’s easy to forget such shows of tentative unity are pageantry at their core, just like everything else in the Olympics: they’re reality TV, international politics and a game show compressed into one blindingly spectacular package.
But while displays of symbolic unity are easy to fake, underlying tensions and subtle sport-driven power moves are not. There’s a historical precedent for the games themselves being political — not only the issues looming over the nations, but the very consequences of who wins, who loses or who even is allowed to enter.
The Munich Massacre, prompted by the ongoing Israel-Palestine dispute, killed several Israeli athletes in 1972.
The 1976 Olympic boycott held by 28 African nations was spurred by New Zealand’s breaking of the athletics embargo on apartheid South Africa, which it had toured earlier.
And in 1968, Vera Caslavska competed as a Czechoslovakian gymnast, defying the USSR, and ended up winning a silver medal — which was placed around her neck as the Soviet anthem blared in the background.
The Olympic charter has historically tried to preclude the mingling of politics with the sports extravaganza — tried, and failed. But the one thing binding these and countless other politically-driven events during the games is that they displayed the mounting pressure of the conflicts in the world around them. And these are always preexisting issues; no new international friends nor enemies are made in the Olympic process, but the cracks already there are condensed within a stadium and broadcast as faultlines.
So, no, the Olympics are likely not going to usher in a new era of peace on the Korean peninsula, at least not while the North Korean government stands firm in its position. Yet while the Olympics are a barometer of how different governments feel about each other, we should just as much keep an eye out for how people in the audience react.
In the meantime, we can spend these next few weeks ooh-ing and aah-ing over ice skaters and skiers.