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Commentary: The Political Power Of The Olympic Ideal

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Pyeongchang, South Korea, has hosted athetes from 92 countries for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The nations of the world are gathered once again for the Olympic Games and — wouldn’t you know it? — there still isn’t peace on earth. Yet as commentator Victor Wishna explains in this month’s edition of 'A Fan’s Notes,' in times like these, it really may be the thought that counts.

When the delegations of North and South Korea walked in to Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium this week as one team, was it a big deal or just a big show?

After all, North and South have marched together at the Games before, though never this close to the DMZ or with tensions quite so high. And for the first time, the two countries even competed together, combining their women’s hockey teams into a single squad. It made a statement.

Yes, a political statement. The fact is, politics has always been a part of the Olympics, and was always meant to be. It’s no coincidence that the idea to revive the ancient Greek games came in the late 19th century at a time when global tensions were set to boil over. A French aristocrat named Pierre de Coubertin proposed the modern Olympics specifically as a way of promoting peace between warring nations — an opportunity not just for national anthems, but international overtures.

Granted, that didn’t work out so well. And when you think of particularly political Olympic moments, most of the examples are bad: boycotts, bans, protests, massacres.

Yet there’s no separating the issues of the day from what is not just the world’s biggest sporting event, but its biggest stage. On a planet where more people have cell phones than have access to clean water, the Olympic audience is projected to exceed three billion.

The Olympic Charter explicitly states that the games are contests between athletes, quote, “not between countries,” which — besides being a nice loophole for the Russians — allows us to also focus on all the individual stories of triumph and resolution, from figure skater Adam Rippon’s venerable stand for LGBT rights to Mirai Nagasu’s historic triple axel to Jamie Anderson’s dominance of the elements and the competition to defend her gold-medal standing in women’s snowboard slopestyle (and I now know what that is).

Meanwhile, the unified Korean women’s hockey team won’t be getting any medals — they were twice outscored eight-to-nothing — but one IOC member has already nominated them for the Nobel Peace Prize. Seriously. And there was something endearingly cheesy, as well as creepy, about those North Korean cheerleaders, more than a hundred young women in matching tracksuits waving and chanting in perfect unison for the mostly South Korean players.

Symbolic gestures are often seen as … well, that’s  just it: merely symbolic. But symbolism is the currency of diplomacy, and on occasion — such as the world’s biggest stage — symbolism can be important and even offer the chance to affect positive change. No; One parade, one flag, one very-not-good hockey team isn’t going to solve a problem like Korea, but it’s a start. Even as polls show most South Koreans worry the intra-peninsular love-in is just a PR ploy for Pyongyang, President Moon Jae-In may become the first Southern leader to visit the North in more than a decade.

To put too fine a point on it, the official theme of the opening ceremonies was “hope” and what might blossom from a seed of goodwill. And that’s something we could certainly use around here, especially now. I’m not saying that 17-year-old snowboarders could be our best hope for statesmanship, but I am implying it.

Normally, I’m cynical when it comes to the Olympic ideal — it’s just so idealistic. But in light of today’s political atmosphere, maybe it’s time to give it a shot.

Victor Wishna is a writer, editor and sports fan. He lives in Leawood.

Victor Wishna is a contributing author and commentator for Up to Date.