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16 February 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 9:04am

A political history of the Winter Olympics

From 9/11 to North Korea, world politics have played out in the stadium. 

By Jung Woo Lee

The Winter Olympic Games is a relatively humble sporting event in comparison with its summer counterpart. Indeed, fewer sporting programmes take place and fewer countries take part in this winter sporting occasion than in the Summer Olympics. However, this modest nature by no mean suggests the festival of snow and ice sports presents fewer episodes of a political drama. 

Take the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Just five months before the commencement of this event, Americans witnessed terrorist attacks against their homeland. The memory of this tragedy was still vivid when the Winter Olympics was getting underway. The host nation used this sporting spectacle as a rite to remember the morning of 11 September 2001. A torn American flag, which had been found in the Ground Zero, was carried into the Rice-Eccles Olympic stadium during the opening ceremony. The flag bearers were officers from the New York Police Department and the Fire Department of New York, along with American athletes. Daniel Rodriguez, NYPD officer, also sang “God Bless America” solemnly. The Olympic spectacle had turned into an American patriotic ritual.

The US president, George W. Bush, also played a part. In proclaiming the arrival of Salt Lake City 2002, he added patriotic colour to the conventional opening declaration, adding “on behalf of a proud, determined and grateful nation…” Instead of staying at a VIP box in the stadium, he stood alongside Team USA to show national unity.

The 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi was arguably the most controversial of politicised sports events. An avid skier, Russian president Vladimir Putin was keen to exploit sports to display the glory of post-Cold War Russia and the power of his political leadership. 

Sochi, on the Black Sea coast, was not seen as a conventional winter sport venue. Nor did it have modern amenities to host the Winter Olympics. The development of this small beach town into the Olympic city necessitated a massive urban uplift project. This drastic transformation cost Russia approximately $51bn, making Sochi 2014 the most expensive Olympics so far. As the games unfolded, Russia was filled with nationalistic fervour. Putin dexterously used this emotionally charged moment to propagate his image as a great leader. It was his Olympics after all.

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Critics, though, questioned whether Russia was a suitable Olympic host, given its record on human rights. The International Olympic Committee might have pondered whether hosting the global sporting event would make Kremlin a responsible international player. This idealistic vision was shattered when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine a few weeks later. 

The 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang looks the most political winter Olympics ever. Dubbed the “Peace Olympics”, North Korea’s participation in the Games inevitably intensifies the political undertone of this event.

The political and military tensions surrounding the Korean peninsula are yet to abate. Nevertheless, the two Koreas are displaying unity at the Olympic Games. The South Korean president Moon Jae-in and Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of the North Korean leader, celebrated together when the two Korean Olympic teams paraded as one during the opening ceremony. They also sat next to each other amicably and cheered jointly for the unified Korean women’s ice hockey team in the Olympic ice rink. 

The North Korean presence in the South Korean town of Pyeongchang may indicate thawing the relations between the two Koreas. Indeed, North and South Korea restored the diplomatic channel between the two sides. Yet, North Korea’s warm gestures may also be a propaganda effort to grab the spotlight and produce an appearance of peace-loving military power.

The USA is also playing a political game at the Winter Olympics. The White House invited the father of the late North Korea detainee Otto Warmbier to the opening ceremony. The US Vice President Mike Pence skipped the official reception in order to avoid meeting with the North Korean delegation. When the Korean Olympians marched together during the parade of the nations,  Pence declined to stand. These actions imply the US will continue its hardline approach to communist Korea. 

The importance of the Winter Olympics to international diplomacy looks likely only to increase. After Pyeongchang, Beijing will host the Winter Olympic Games in 2022.With  China becoming more economically and militarily ambitious under Xi Jinping, the wintertime political drama is likely to be continued.

Dr Jung Woo Lee is Lecturer in Sport and Leisure Policy at the University of Edinburgh. He recently published (with two co-editors) an edited volume of Routledge Handbook of Sport and Politics.

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