The Game of Games: PyeongChang 2018
Despite several new world records—PyeongChang 2018 will be remembered as the platform for maturing diplomacy, unveiling scandals and perhaps, welcoming a new era of simultaneous sporting and policymaking.
There is a lot of noise surrounding the Winter Olympics this time. Several cases of doping, political grandstanding, intrigue, bribery and scandal coupled with sexual abuse have taken centre-stage, instead of skiing, skating and bobsled. Politics is not something new to the Olympics; but this year, PyeongChang it seems, has achieved an unprecedented measure in the way the Games became a full-tilt platform over the weekend for maturation in international relations, with the two Koreas glad-handing and edging closer as the world watched in anticipation.
Though it is far too early to suggest that the tectonic plates of the Korean Peninsula have shifted, PyeongChang has surely secured a spot in Olympic fable. There were the North and South, side-by-side in the Opening Ceremony, on the hockey ice and in the dignitaries' box, with an unusually calm Kim Yo-jong, the 30-year-old sister of the North Korean leader, looking on. With a smile, a handshake and a warm message in South Korea's presidential guest book, Kim Yo-jong struck an instant chord with the public on the very first day of the PyeongChang Games. Considered to be her brother's answer to America's first daughter Ivanka Trump, Kim is not only a powerful member of Kim Jong-un's kitchen cabinet but also a foil to the perception of North Korea as antiquated and militaristic.
From the point of political optics, the Games so far, have been a win. South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who has irked the Trump administration considerably by advocating for substantive engagement with the North, was seen welcoming athletes from the North. He also attended a luncheon in Seoul during a hockey match, watching the joint Koreas take the ice against Sweden. One of North Korea's songs went: "Victory! Our players win! Win!" Not one of the great lyrics when the Koreans went down 8-0!
But, coming along to Mike Pence, he had definitely not come along all this way to make friends. The Vice-President became the biggest story at the Olympics after he decided to remain seated during the Unified Korean team's introduction at the Opening Ceremony. For one, Pence's refusal to stand indicated that he hijacked the NFL players' protest from last season when players knelt or remained seated during the national anthem. It's ironic and hypocritical of Pence because he walked out of an Indianapolis Colts game last season in anger after seeing members of the San Francisco 49ers doing the same thing. So, it appears a protest at a sporting event can be meant for something else, just as NFL players were never protesting the national anthem, but police brutality.
There are definitive issues with the host country. At the end of the Games, it needs to be seen how the Olympic cooperation between North and South Korea will come off. The contest will also put to test the grit and patience between the nuclear sabre-rattling United States and North Korea, whose border is just 50 miles north of Pyeongchang County.
Doping scandals have dominated the build-up to the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. This is one of the IOC's marquee events and the financial viability of the Olympic "movement" depends on it. The background to the latest scandal is easily explained. But the lessons that need to be learnt cannot be so simply analysed.
Allegations of a Russian state-sponsored doping conspiracy at the 2014 Sochi Olympics prompted the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to commission an investigation by Canadian sports lawyer Richard McLaren. His report fed into the IOC's investigation of the Sochi Olympics and its own disciplinary process. This all led to the IOC's decision in December 2017 to suspend the Russian Olympic Committee with immediate effect. Nevertheless, the IOC decided to invite individual Russian athletes to the competition but under strict conditions. They have been allowed to participate under a separate designation of "Olympic Athlete from Russia," without the Russian flag being displayed at the Opening Ceremony and without its anthem being played. An IOC panel appointed to oversee this process initially reviewed applications submitted by 500 Russian athletes — 111 were refused almost immediately. With 169 Russians permitted to go to PyeongChang by its own review panel plus the 28 cleared by case, it could be said there are now 197 holes in the key pieces of evidence relied upon by the IOC — the McLaren report and that of Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov.
Exactly 20 years ago at the Winter Olympics in Japan's Nagano, Samsung Electronics' flag flew alongside those of super-famous sponsors like Coca-Cola and Panasonic. The logo of an electronics company that would later become a global behemoth looked unfamiliar to many. The South Korean company has stayed on as a sponsor ever since, making the Games a part of its strategy to boost its name and recognition. And, the tactic proved to be a huge success. The electronics giant was also instrumental in Pyeongchang County snagging the 2018 Games. In late 2009, then-President Lee Myung-bak pardoned Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee for his embezzlement and tax evasion convictions. The move enabled him to actively lobby for the International Olympic Committee to award the Games to South Korea. The usually unemotional chairman could not hold back his tears when Pyeongchang was chosen in 2011. Understandably, the Olympics carry special weight for Samsung, whose ads helped stir up the spirit of the event in the past.
The corruption scandal that led to the removal of South Korean President Park Geun-hye casts a long shadow over the company. Vice-Chairman Lee Jae-Yong, the chairman's eldest son, went to prison last year after being found guilty of multiple corruption and bribery charges, including sponsoring equestrian lessons for the daughter of Park's confidante. The corruption scandals in South Korea — from Samsung to the President resigning — are not necessarily about the Games but they do spill over into the Games. The narrative is really the Olympics being hosted in a country that is wrestling with systemic corruption.
In another shocker, the US Olympic Committee opened its first news conference of the Winter Games with an apology to the victims of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics doctor accused of molesting 265 girls and women. Nassar, 54, has been given effective life sentences after pleading guilty to molesting 10 girls under the guise of bare-handed pelvic procedures and to the possession of child pornography. There has been a lot of talk about corruption for the past 20 years and yet, in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, here we are with the Russian doping scandal and the chairman of the Brazilian National Olympic Committee being indicted for bribing to win the Games, the Samsung fiasco, the Larry Nassar scandal, so on and so forth. Most think that the Olympics are inherently corrupt and hopeless. But, we must be more idealistic, with the Olympics reminding us of what we want to be and also what we're not.
The Olympic legacy is often judged in an economic sense. But the legacy can be political socio-cultural or even sporting. Proceedings in PyeongChang are being keenly watched. The little-known host city, which sits some 80 km from the border with North Korea, has borne witness to on-field displays of bonhomie between the neighbours. The two nations have marched together at the Opening Ceremony under a flag representing Unified Korea and have fielded a combined women's ice hockey team. Though the team lost poorly to Sweden in a practice game, supporters of both the countries cheered their side on together in a time of escalating political tensions as the scorecards looked immaterial.
Meanwhile, India has been represented by luger Shiva Keshavan, competing in his sixth and last Olympics, and skier Jagdish Singh, who took part in his first. For years, Keshavan never had a personal coach and had to rely on advice from more established names in the sport. In the last few years, he was coached by American Duncan Kennedy, a former luge world champion. In what turned out to be his final Olympic event at PyeongChang, Keshavan clocked 48.900 seconds in his third-round heat. He finished 34th overall and since he finished outside the top 20, he did not get a chance to compete in the final run, which decided the medals. Keshavan may not have an Olympic medal but over the past 20 years and in the years to come, it is certain that he will continue to be the first name that comes to mind when discussing Indian winter sports.
As records continue to tumble at the Games, Olympic diplomacy has now become a force to reckon with for the world. Now, it remains to be seen whether atmospherics will only have a temporary effect or head for permanent peace followed up with more concrete measures. Hence, the Olympic rapprochement may be on, but conditions apply!