The Opening Ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games takes place Friday in South Korea, yet these games already have a winner: the Olympic spirit itself.
North and South Korean athletes will march under the same flag during the ceremony, signaling that at least for a fortnight or so the ancient tradition of the Olympic Truce can have a modern manifestation. The symbolic gesture has been accompanied by a slight thaw in the conflict between the Koreas that has also iced more productive relations between the U.S. and China.
None of this means the intractable issues isolating the North from South — let alone the rest of the world — are solved. Most notably, the threat from the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development still looms, and the heinous nature of Kim Jong Un’s regime has not changed in any fundamental way. But the Olympics do provide a diplomatic opening, and at a minimum the North’s participation means the regime won’t menace the games taking place south of the Demilitarized Zone.
It’s not the first time the Koreas have marched together during a sporting event, but it will be the first time they have fielded a unified hockey team. That squad will also feature a Minnesotan, Marissa Brandt, who was adopted from her native South Korea when she was just months old. Marissa’s sister, Hannah, is one of eight players with state ties to make the U.S. women’s hockey team. Overall there are 20 Minnesotans (and one alternate) on Team USA, the third-most after Colorado (31) and California (21).
The Brandt sisters’ feel-good story will certainly interest NBC, and the network should draw more viewers because of its decision to finally air prime-time coverage live across the country, reflecting the reality of real-time results instantly posted on internet news sites and social-media feeds.
Of course, every story won’t be a feel-good tale, and in fact there are already several unfortunate Olympic developments, including the NHL’s shortsighted decision not to participate. That’s a loss for the Olympics but also for the league, which gave up an opportunity to showcase its increasingly international talent base.
Far more significant are the growing calls for a congressional investigation of the roles played by the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics in the sexual abuse of athletes by former sports doctor Larry Nassar.
There’s also the sordid story of Russian athletes disqualified for doping. The rot went all the way to the top of Russia’s Olympic Committee and was so egregious that the International Olympic Committee banned Russia’s team from marching under its flag. And yet Russia will still send about 170 participants competing as “Olympic athletes from Russia,” not too far below the 232 who competed — and in many cases, cheated — in Sochi four years ago. The disconnect sends a mixed message about just how tough the IOC plans to be on doping.
A worried world needs the Olympic spirit more than ever. Yes, geopolitics and scandals loom large, but that’s always been part of the narrative. But so too has hope for peace through sport, and at least so far the Pyeongchang Games have delivered.