With most of our sports attention this weekend focused on Foxboro and the health of Tom Brady’s throwing hand, many probably missed a major sports story across the globe that should get lots of headlines in the coming weeks.
On Saturday, the International Olympic Committee approved a plan allow 22 North Korean athletes from five different sports to compete at next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. That includes twelve women’s hockey players who will join with the South Korean team to play as a unified Korea. This is the first time that will ever happen in that sport and the first time North and South Korea will compete as a single team at a top level international competition since the two nations’ Table Tennis teams combined for the 1991 World Championship.
This is also a big deal because North Korea has boycotted every major international sporting event hosted by South Korea for decades. They didn’t participate in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. They also boycotted qualification for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, co-hosted by South Korea and Japan.
And until about two weeks ago, the North was poised to keep its athletes home again. But, both sides have advocated for a thaw in relations for the better part of a year.
The Korean peninsula has been divided in two since the end Imperial Japanese rule after World War II. Korea became and remains the most visible remnant of the Cold War. The Korean War failed to unify the country and the current border between North and South has stood since the end of that war in 1953.
Both governments have the stated goal of Korean reunification. They are still very far away from that stated goal, but the recent thaw has given some cause for optimism that the divide can eventually be bridged.
The announcement of the two nations working together, competing together, and even marching together under a single Unification Flag at the Opening Ceremony was met with almost universal acclaim. IOC President Thomas Bach declared Saturday, “The Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang 2018 are hopefully opening the door to a brighter future on the Korean Peninsula and inviting the world to join in a celebration of hope.”
Unfortunately and expectedly, this possibility was not met with happiness in the United States. Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said on Twitter as talks kicked off two weeks ago, “Allowing Kim Jong Un’s North Korea to participate in the #WinterOlympics would give legitimacy to the most illegitimate regime on the planet. I’m confident that South Korea will reject this overture and fully believe that if North Korea goes to the Winter Olympics, we do not.”
To call for a boycott of the Olympics over the inclusion of a rival nation is one of the most tone-deaf things I’ve ever seen or heard from a politician. If the Winter Olympics were being held in any other country, North Korea’s participation wouldn’t even be in question, and neither would ours, or anybody else’s.
North Korea is a world hot spot right now. But, it wouldn’t be nearly as hot a spot if it were not for our own President’s inability or unwillingness to actually negotiate a solution to the problem. He’d rather get into a “My button is bigger than your button” school yard taunting match that is bringing us closer to a major international military conflict than we’ve been during my lifetime.
But, one group of people who definitely do not deserve to be held hostage in this clash of immature schoolboys is our Olympic athletes. Many of them work in anonymity for years in sports many of us only watch during the Olympics to reach their goal of competing on the world stage and achieving the Olympic dream. Many of them come from small towns in every corner of the country. They sacrifice work, family, and financial security to reach their dream and represent their country, their states, their communities, and their families. They practice and compete for years with the hopes having a gold medal hung around their neck, to stand on top of a medal podium and sing along with the Star-Spangled Banner, tears in their eyes, as our flag is raised in triumph.
Why would anyone want to deprive our athletes, their families, friends, supporters, and our citizens, of these wonderful stories and scenes? Because we’re mad that North Korea won’t cede to our government’s demands? Do we really want to punish a group of people who don’t have a dog in the fight and rip away their right to represent our country because our politicians can’t or won’t figure out how to deconflict?
Thankfully, no one of consequence heeded Graham’s call for a boycott. Our athletes will be in Pyeongchang next month and we’ll have lots of tear-jerking stories of unknown Americans from the middle of nowhere becoming the best in the world. We should also celebrate that Koreans want to come together and try to find a way to solve their problems and unify as one.
Maybe they can teach us a thing or two about how to do that here at home.