Maybe it’s time for a new Olympic truce.
Not the biennial declaration that’ll be heard again Friday when Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, gives his speech at the opening ceremony of the 2018 PyeongChang Games in South Korea.
No, this one could strike a different bargain instead. If the money-hoarding IOC and its various stakeholders offered a cease-fire from all the subterfuge — that goes for broadcasting partners like NBC and corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola as well as the scores of self-dealing national Olympic committees and international sports federations with their five-star hotels and $1,000 per diems — then maybe the rest of us could simply sit back and enjoy the spectacle.
Because that’s what the Olympics are: a spectacle. A wondrous collection of thousands of athletes — more than 3,500 from 92 different countries at these Games — all gathered in one place for a competition that’ll produce scores of dramatic moments and inspiring stories over the next 17 days.
Some of them undoubtedly will feature American stars like slalom queen Mikaela Shiffrin in the alpine events and quad king Nathan Chen in figure skating, or snowboard legend Shaun White and fresh-faced prodigy Chloe Kim in the halfpipe. The NBC cameras are counting on it, in fact.
But there’s also Norway’s dominant cross-country skiers, the intense U.S.-Canada rivalry in women’s hockey, a Nigerian bobsled team and the man they call “Legend” — Japan’s 45-year-old ski jumper, Noriaki Kasai, making his record eighth Olympic trip. And so on.
A dying movement
Yet the Games also are a mess of corruption and scandal and political chicanery. And where it all starts to fall apart is when the power brokers who control the Olympic “movement” all try to pretend otherwise.
Coaxing resolutions out of the United Nations about “building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal” while still handing the Games themselves to the highest bidder, never mind those pesky human-rights violations or economy-crushing costs and white-elephant venues.
Or sham-banning a country for its state-sponsored doping program only to allow it in as a barely disguised imposter, as is the case with the Russian delegation — 168 athletes and counting — competing in PyeongChang under a “neutral” Olympic flag with Vladimir Putin’s blessing.
American Katie Uhlaender, a four-time Olympian in skeleton racing, is among those expressing her disappointment with IOC and world anti-doping officials in the wake of this latest Russian capitulation, by the way. She missed out on a medal by four-hundredths of a second at the tainted 2014 Sochi Games, bested by a Russian athlete who later was stripped of the bronze medal for doping violations, only to be reinstated again on appeal.
Like so many Olympians, all Uhlaender wants is an honest attempt at ensuring fair play. But as she told the Washington Post last week, “Right now, it’s not just me — a lot of athletes feel like we’re believing in a movement that is dying.”
Remember that thought, then, as the gauzy, prepackaged coverage begins in earnest tonight on NBC, and the geopolitical backdrop for these 2018 Winter Olympics is brought to life in ways that probably won’t do it justice.
Sure, North Korea is competing in the Olympics for the first time in eight years. The Korean athletes — North and South — will march into the stadium together with a “unification” flag during the parade of nations. They’re also competing with a joint women’s hockey team. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is even sending his sister to PyeongChang as part of his country’s official delegation.
‘Astonishing moment in time’
Jim Bell, the executive producer for NBC’s Olympics coverage, said on a conference call Tuesday, “We’ve got ourselves a pretty astonishing moment in time, one that perhaps the Olympics hasn’t seen since 1936 in Berlin.”
But what do we really have, exactly? That’s the question we should be asking, especially if all those with a financial stake — NBC, which paid the IOC more than $12 billion in rights fees through 2032, just announced a record $900 million in national ad sales for these Winter Olympics — aren’t going to on their own.
Skepticism abounds about a temporary thaw in the rhetoric on a dangerously divided Korean Peninsula, with the South desperate to host the Games without incident and the North perhaps seizing an opportunity in the face of crippling economic sanctions.
Of course, by now we all should understand that what you see is rarely what you get when it comes to the Olympics, whether it is the obfuscated poverty in Rio de Janeiro or blanket denials of human-rights abuses in Beijing.
Having covered six Olympic Games myself, I can tell you the athletes figured all that out long ago. They understand where the money goes and where it doesn’t, and they know who’s clean and who’s dirty.
“Big politics that have come to play and the big business that has kind of, in a way, taken over,” four-time Olympic luger Erin Hamlin — who’ll be the U.S. flagbearer at Friday’s opening ceremony — said last month prior to a World Cup race in Latvia. “And I think a lot of the storylines get kind of taken away from the athletes and the amazing performances at the games and leading up to them.”
Only if they let them, though. That’s what the athletes have discovered, the ones who have to live with this five-ring circus. The IOC and South Korean officials can trumpet these as the “Peace Olympics” if they want. And once the IOC president has said his piece and the Olympic flame is lit in PyeongChang Olympic Stadium, “then we know what it is about in the Olympic Games,” Bach said. “It is about sport, it is about the athletes, it is about their excellence and their values.”
If only that were so. But if the athletes can pretend, I suppose, so can we.