Great sporting events are political. As much as athletes, football players, swimmers and the rest would like to think that international tournaments are merely an opportunity for them to demonstrate their prowess, they also can be used for purposes of diplomacy or realpolitik.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics were a shop-window for Nazi Germany. The 1980 Moscow Olympics were boycotted by Americans in protest of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The Soviets duly kept their team and those of their eastern European satellites away from Los Angeles in 1984.
Such events also can build bridges. Late last year, the standoff between the two Koreas over Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program seemed to bring the peninsula close to war, and the tensions have not disappeared.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, recently warned that Pyongyang could be preparing for another missile test and reiterated that the U.S. would not accept a nuclear North. Yet the fact that the Winter Olympics are taking place in South Korea next month has opened a window to a possible rapprochement. Kim’s regime said it is willing to hold talks with officials in Seoul about participating in the Games.
Talks are expected to be held next week, both to discuss the North sending a delegation and a general de-escalation of tension. South Korea’s president sees the Pyeongchang Games as a “groundbreaking chance to improve South-North relations and establish peace.” His optimism might be misplaced, with the North attaching unacceptable conditions or continuing with its provocations regardless.
Yet if the Games can help to reduce the risk of a conflict, then the investment in new ski slopes will have been worth it.