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Olympics Showcased Korean Progress, but to Claim Responsibility for Breakthrough is Misguided

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In this photo provided by the North Korean government on Saturday, March 31, 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center right, walks with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, center left, during a meeting in Pyongyang, North Korea. Bach met with Kim on Friday and said the North Korean leader is committed to having his country participate in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and the Beijing Winter Games in 2022. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. Korean language watermark on image as provided by source reads: "KCNA" which is the abbreviation for Korean Central News Agency. Photo: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

By Nick Butler |

What a difference a year can make.

In May 2017, my colleague David Owen explored the consequences of the Winter Olympics being canceled in Pyeongchang due to unrest on the Korean Peninsula and, when I visited three months later for the final International Olympic Committee (IOC) Coordination Commission inspection, a lingering sense of unease was exacerbated by North Korea flying a missile over Japan shortly before the meeting began.

Fast forward to last week and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is traveling over the border for a historic meeting with South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, during which an agreement to finally end the Korean War was approved.

It is still possible that everything could fall apart, but even the progress realized so far appeared unlikely as recently as the beginning of this year.

The Olympics, with its unified Opening Ceremony march and unified Korean female ice hockey team, certainly featured in the many-layered machinations which culminated in last week’s meeting.

IOC President Thomas Bach is in no doubt just how important they were.

“International relations are often said to be all about sober realpolitik,” he wrote in an editorial published in several newspapers around the world the day before the Summit. “So it may have come as a surprise to some that it was the power of sport that provided the opening for North and South Korea to consider dialogue rather than confrontation.”

Bach, building-up a head of steam, then claimed that the IOC began the “long process of negotiations and high-level Government engagement” in 2014 before trumpeting the impact of the “Olympic Truce resolution” approved in November at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.

“When Pierre de Coubertin revived the modern Olympic Games over 100 years ago, his idea that sport could bring together all people in peaceful competition was also seen by many as a naive idea in an age of nationalism. But if the Olympic Games can still bring together rivals and enemies in 2018, it seems that, well over a century later, this naive idea continues to have much compelling power in today’s world.”

Ever the politician, Bach then spoke of his “cautious optimism” at further progress on the Korean Peninsula before urging all parties to build on the so called “Olympic momentum.”

Bach, the first IOC President to publicly accept that sport should not ignore world politics and to claim it has a role in shaping it, had every right to make this claim after a welcome success for the Olympic brand after years of turbulence.

Some agreed; others did not.

The website gamesbids.com tweeted above a link to Bach’s words: “Reminder of what the Olympics can really achieve – looking beyond criticism of mismanagement and corruption, the results can be exceptional.”

This provoked a furious response from Twitter handle @CounterOlympics, who slammed what they claimed was a “fundamentally dishonest narrative.”

“In fact this claim by @gamesbids is quite outrageous and totally fails to give any credit to the mass movement which removed Park [Geun-hye], without which Moon, who is primarily responsible for this opening, would not have been where he is,” they said. “This is very similar to the #Olympics narrative which tries to credit #Seoul1988 with the political changes in South Korea, whereas in fact it was all about the movement for democracy which had broken the dictatorship which had wanted to use the #Olympics to boost its rule!”

Success has 1,000 fathers, and failure is an orphan, former United States President John F. Kennedy once noted.

Therefore, it no surprise that the current US President President Donald Trump is among those claiming credit for the progress in Korea, as is China’s leader Xi Jinping.

Personally, I think both these claims carry more weight because they arguably influenced Kim’s remarkable U-turn in his New Year’s day address when, out of nowhere, he suddenly embraced the idea of Olympic participation.

The IOC “engagement” and “negotiations” since 2014 could have extended to Bach personally travelling to North Korea every week to give Kim private fencing lessons, and it would not have made a blind bit of difference.

But what the IOC did well was playing the hand they were dealt by Kim’s olive branch.

Bach deserves credit for spotting an opportunity and using all his diplomatic craft to make the most of it by promoting the joint march and ice hockey team. It would not have happened without the IOC’s stewardship.

“The dynamics surrounding the Korean Peninsula are complex and multifaceted, with multiple national players and agendas,” said Seoul-based journalist Andrew Salmon, author of Modern Korea: All That Matters. “In this situation, a high-profile, high-prestige event like the Olympics has a role to play. On the ‘peace in Korea front’ there is much heavy lifting ahead, but the Winter Olympics provided a forum for sportive and political interaction, excellent optics and a catalyst for the next moves.

“If – and this is a big if – the positive developments continue over the long term, Pyeongchang 2018 will have its chapter in the history books on inter-Korean reconciliation. But while the possibilities look promising at present, there are still plentiful perils ahead.”

This view can be taken as a general thesis. The Olympics is one of the biggest, perhaps the biggest, sporting or cultural events embraced by the whole world and, as such, it can amplify major issues of the day.

In this case, there is no doubt that the Olympics played a significant role in presenting the idea of a united Korea to local people, as well as to the wider world. @CounterOlympics are wrong to dismiss the Olympic-influence completely and the Seoul 1988 Games certainly helped paint a picture of a new and modern South Korea to the world too.

But it is nonsense to suggest that the power of sport and the “Olympic momentum” was a means by itself rather than just a vehicle to accelerate pressure created elsewhere.

The Olympic Truce, let’s be honest, is an abstract notion that means absolutely nothing to world leaders. Host nation Russia invaded the Crimean region of Ukraine during the last Winter Olympic Truce in 2014.

I doubt Kim would have embraced the Olympic Games if they had happened in February 2017 rather than a year later – they simply came at a convenient time for him.

There are just as many examples of the Olympics highlighting world tensions as there are of it showcasing peace.

I don’t think even Bach’s diplomatic skills would have prevented the boycotts which clouded the Montreal 1976, Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 editions and in Melbourne 1956, the “blood in the water” water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union only made tensions worse.

The IOC are also currently sharpening their diplomatic skills once again in trying to prevent the growing problems of athletes from some countries – especially Israel, Kosovo and Ukraine – being banned from participating at events held in certain others purely for political reasons.

During Beijing 2008, Russia and Georgia met in beach volleyball just after the former country had invaded the latter – yes, during the Olympic Truce. It was hoped the encounter would illustrate the power of sport to transcend political quarrels.

Alas, not.

“They are not even Georgians,” quipped Russia’s Alexandra Shiryaeva in the mixed zone after she and partner Natalie Urdyadova lost by two sets to one to their Brazilian-born opponents.

“Sore losers,” responded Georgian Volleyball Federation President, Levan Akhvlediani, according to The Guardian. “The Russians should go home.”

“It is very stupid for Georgia to start a war with Russia because we are very big and they are very small, but that is always the way in history with Georgia,” said Uryadova.

“They probably don’t even know the name of the Georgian President,” added Shiryaeva.

“Mikhael Saakashvili,” snapped-back Georgia’s Cristine Santanna. “I met his wife at the Athletes’ Village the other day. She was lovely.”

The future will hold more examples of warring nations uniting through sport, just as it will also bring more opportunities to showcase their quarrels.

The IOC are right to celebrate a remarkable success at Pyeongchang 2018 which, if Korean progress does occur, will have played a significant role.

But let’s not get carried away and claim sport can do anything more than provide a platform.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz

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