Politics is part of the story, but the Pyeongchang Winter Games kept the focus on the athletes

John Shuster leads Team USA to Olympic curling gold
Ivanka Trump holds Luke Shuster as he waves to his father, John Shuster, after the U.S. defeated Sweden for the gold medal in men’s curling on Saturday.
(Carlos Gonzalez / Minneapolis Star Tribune)

When the 2018 Winter Olympics come to an end this weekend, when the last bobsled has crossed the finish line, politics will have one more chance to elbow into the picture.

From the start, these Games have been drawn into a decades-old conflict here on the Korean peninsula and shadowed by the nuclear rhetoric between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

On Sunday, Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, is expected to attend the closing ceremony along with North Korean officials in a reprise of Vice President Mike Pence’s uneasy appearance at the opener.

“A high-intensity political narrative,” said Michael Heine, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies in Canada.


At their core, the Games have always been about young men and women devoting themselves to sport, often for little financial reward. But they are also a global business that deals in the realm of governments.

If nothing else, the last month in South Korea has emphasized this duality.

“It’s hypocrisy to say the Olympics are above politics,” said Mark Dyreson, a sports historian at Penn State. “Clearly when you bring them to the Korean peninsula, they are going to be political.”

About two months have passed since Kim delivered a New Year’s Day speech wishing the Games good luck, his conciliatory words triggering last-minute negotiations that ultimately led to a small contingent of North Korean athletes, coaches and officials crossing the border.


His sister attended the opening ceremony with Pence and, soon after, delivered a proposal for future talks between the North and South, who had not met for any high-level summit in more than a decade.

Though critics dismissed this as a “charm offensive,” a public relations ploy to make Kim appear statesmanlike, local Olympic organizers took an optimistic view.

“Sport cannot lead the policy in the political area but we are aiming for a ‘Peace Olympic Games,’” said Lee Hee-beom, president of the 2018 Pyeongchang committee.

Such talk soon quieted as Lee’s organization got down to the nitty-gritty of staging a massive competition that involved nearly 3,000 athletes, a dozen athletic venues and the usual Olympic glitches.

Norovirus struck a housing complex for security personnel, spreading to more than 200 workers and a couple of Swiss athletes, before officials could contain it.

The weather posed another problem early on, as chilling gusts blew from the north, wreaking havoc at mountain venues where snowboarders were blown off balance and biathletes could not feel their numbed trigger fingers.

It is a tribute to the enduring qualities of the Olympics — and the tenacity of the South Koreans — that these predicaments also faded into the background, allowing the athletes to grab center stage.

The headlines were taken over by a pair of American snowboarders in the halfpipe as newcomer Chloe Kim delivered a breakout performance and veteran Shaun White forged a comeback for the ages, winning the third gold medal of his career.


At the Gangneung Ice Arena on the coast, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan looked both strong and graceful as he became the first repeat winner in men’s figure skating in more than six decades.

“I can find one word,” he said, “and that is happy.”

Even with the wind and cold, Pyeongchang served as a welcome contrast to the warm, dry conditions and slushy snow at recent Winter Olympics.

This wasn’t like the 2014 Sochi Games, where piles of construction materials lay scattered around unfinished stadiums. It wasn’t like the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro two years ago, when organizers ran out of money and had to institute emergency cutbacks.

The venues that stretched from South Korea’s Taebaek Mountains to the sea were fully built and received high marks from athletes. The grandstands were often half-empty — despite organizers’ claims about strong ticket sales — but the crowds were friendly and enthusiastic.

“I think we’ve seen this at other Olympics when we have political issues coming up at the front end,” Heine said. “Once the puck drops, the focus always shifts to sports.”

In the ensuing days, that attention centered on a historic performance by the Norwegians. Hailing from a country with roughly the population of Colorado, they dominated in sports such as biathlon, cross-country and ski jumping.

By Saturday, they had won 38 medals to break the U.S.-held record for the most successful Winter Games ever.


“We have winter for six months a year, so skiing is in our blood,” said Havard Bokko, one of the country’s speedskaters.

There were other special moments as the U.S. women’s hockey team ended a 20-year gold drought with a shootout victory over rival Canada and Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic took gold in both Alpine skiing and snowboarding.

“Tomorrow is the finish of the Olympics, right?” the quirky 22-year-old said after winning the parallel giant slalom onSaturday. “I was here many days, I’m really looking forward to getting home.”

But before the International Olympic Committee could tie a bow on Pyeongchang, there was another international mini-drama to address.

Though Russia had been banned from participating in the wake of a doping scandal, the IOC welcomed 168 of the country’s athletes as neutral “Olympic Athletes From Russia,” insisting that these special cases had been thoroughly vetted.

Over the last two weeks, two team members tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, prompting a flurry of activity among Olympic leaders.

In a meeting that stretched through Saturday afternoon, the IOC’s executive board mulled over whether to restore Russia’s status at the end of the Games, as had been previously discussed, and allow the team to march out behind its national flag.

“It’s just as shot-through with politics as the North Korean-South Korean situation,” Heine said.

A verdict was not expected until Sunday, hours before the closing ceremony. Suspense also hovered over another potentially touchy scene at Olympic Stadium.

Pence never acknowledged Kim’s sister during the opening ceremony, though she sat only a few feet away. The next day, the Washington Post reported, North Korea canceled a secret meeting with him.

This weekend, Ivanka Trump could share the dignitaries’ box with Kim Yong Chol, a North Korean official who is the alleged mastermind behind a pair of 2010 attacks that killed 50 South Koreans.

On the stadium floor, marching with the other athletes, will be a women’s hockey team composed of players from North and South Korea. For the better part of three weeks, their Canadian coach has chosen to ignore such global issues.

Sarah Murray prefers to view the Olympics as purely sport.

“Our games weren’t a political statement to us,” she said. “They were just games.”

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