Facts matter, something the Trump administration would do well to remember the next time it’s thinking about weighing in on a decision. Especially one in which it has no say.
With comments first by United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley and then White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the administration gave the impression that American athletes might skip the Pyeongchang Olympics because of tensions in North Korea.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
There is, first off, the small matter of this not even being the White House’s decision.
The U.S. Olympic Committee is not a government organization – it doesn’t receive direct federal funding – and it will make the call on whether to send a team to Pyeongchang. Any other Olympics, for that matter, too.
And yes, I know all about the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980. President Jimmy Carter called for it after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, but it still was the USOC that had the final say.
The USOC has been asked several times about safety concerns around the Pyeongchang Games, and it’s been unequivocal in saying the U.S. team is going. In September, having met with the State Department, local law enforcement, South Korean officials and the four-star general who oversees American forces on the Korean Peninsula, CEO Scott Blackmun said “the USOC will go.”
That position hasn’t changed, USOC spokesman Mark Jones said Thursday.
“We have not had any discussions, either internally or with our government partners, about the possibility of not taking teams to the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games,” Jones said.
“We plan on supporting two full delegations in Pyeongchang.”
Why the administration decided to insert itself, and do it now, isn’t clear. But the comments did come after the International Olympic Committee banned Russia from Pyeongchang because of a widespread, state-sponsored doping program. Russian athletes still can compete as independent athletes, but the Russian flag will not be seen and the Russian anthem will not be played at medal ceremonies.
Still, Haley and Sanders ought to have known better. They might have thought they were making throwaway statements, but they have a real impact on athletes who have spent their lives training for this moment.
Most of the American contingent still is trying to secure their spot on the U.S. team, a stressful enough scenario without adding in doubt about whether they’ll get to compete. The U.S. women bobsledders, for example, still didn’t have their sleds Thursday for a World Cup meet in Germany that helps determine Olympic qualification. Think comments like Haley’s and Sanders’ did anything to calm their nerves?
Yes, Pyeonchang is about 50 miles from the border with North Korea, which has world leaders on edge because of its increasingly aggressive nuclear tests and belligerent back and forth with President Donald Trump. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has made no threats against the Olympics, however, and the IOC has repeatedly said it is confident the Games – and the athletes competing in them — will be safe.
Not to diminish the tensions on the Korean Peninsula, but the IOC has some experience with this. It held the Summer Games in Seoul in 1988, of course. But more recently, it has held Olympics in Salt Lake City, Athens, London and Sochi where terrorism was a very real threat.
Salt Lake was the first Games after 9/11. Athens was the first Summer Olympics after 9/11, and its proximity to the Middle East raised its vulnerability. The day after London was awarded the 2012 Games, 52 people were killed in bombings by terrorists. Chechen rebels threatened to strike during Sochi, and police launched a massive manhunt for “Black Widow” suicide bombers a month before the Games.
Each of the Games went off without any problems.
The IOC might have issues, but security at the Games is not one of them. It coordinates with every major law enforcement and intelligence agency in the world on its security plans, and spares no expense. Police and military personnel are a very visible presence in and around the Olympic park and every venue, and there’s plenty more that isn’t visible.
Add to that the security the USOC brings for the U.S. team, and the Olympics are often the safest place in the world to be.
But that doesn’t draw the headlines like fear-mongering.
Olympians represent the best a nation has to offer: dedicated, hard-working athletes who are proud to represent their country. They are the very best in the world at what they do. If the White House is trying to play politics, they’re doing it with the wrong people.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.