What's wrong with the Olympics isn't limited to the rapturous reception accorded to Kim Yo-jong in Pyeongchang, South Korea. As Bethany Mandel pointed out here, it's a disgrace that the sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was fawned over by the ...and more »
What’s wrong with the Olympics isn’t limited to the rapturous reception accorded to Kim Yo-jong in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
As Bethany Mandel pointed out here, it’s a disgrace that the sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was fawned over by the international press and favorably compared to Vice President Mike Pence because he refused to play along with that evil regime’s charm offensive. It’s appalling that many are so willing to embrace those responsible for countless murders and torture just to take a swipe at President Trump.
But the heart of the problem isn’t the obsession with Trump or even the North Koreans’ clever use of the Olympics to soften the image of what is arguably the worst tyranny on the planet. The real problem is that the Olympics always lend themselves to bad actors and foolish notions about the majesty of sports and international cooperation. The Olympics are the United Nations of sports — high-minded principles and feel-good sentiments exploited by hypocrites to the detriment of the cause of freedom.
The Olympics are great for athletes and for a network like NBC that ponied up billions for the rights to cover them. They’re sports for casual fans, and they make great television. More than that, the games thrive because of notions about sports transcending conflicts that are essential to the Olympic myth.
The reason the North Korean gambit worked so well is because these fables have always been a load of baloney.
The worst example was the 1936 Berlin Olympics hosted by the Nazis. Olympic mythology tells us that African-American track superstar Jesse Owens embarrassed Adolf Hitler with his victories over Aryan athletes.
But the Berlin Games were an enormous propaganda success for the Nazi regime that helped reinforce the notion that appeasing Hitler was the best option for the West. The Olympics normalized the Nazis, and they’re doing the same now as pundits gush over the cute but robotic North Korean cheerleaders who are actually an apt metaphor for totalitarianism.
Since the 1936 Games, other dictatorships have exploited the Olympics, though not always with the same success. That was as true for the ill-fated Tito regime in Yugoslavia at the 1984 Sarajevo Games as it was for Communist China’s brilliant 2008 spectacle in Beijing that demonstrated that concerns over its oppression in Tibet and human-rights violations at home were not as important as a good sports show.
And it also lay behind the Olympics’ decision to treat the murder of Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972 as not important enough to put the rest of the show on hold.
Those who tell us not to mix sports with politics dismiss such concerns. But the problem with the Olympics is that these flag-waving and torch-lighting shows are inherently political and always vulnerable to exploitation.
Nationalism is healthy when directed toward celebrating a country’s achievements. But in this context, it is as often misused as not.
Even when the good guys win, such as the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980, when an upstart Team USA beat a fabled Soviet ice-hockey team, we forgot it was just one squad of athletes beating another, not a blow struck for freedom. That game did nothing to free those ground down by Communism, including the players exploited and abused by the Soviet system.
Sports provide wonderful entertainment that many of us love. But the notion that they can transcend the cause of freedom is dead wrong. Our desire to have nothing interfere with our fun causes us to ignore more important issues, like the need to treat the members of the North Korean regime and other rogues as the criminals they are.
That’s why mixing sports, nationalism and vague concepts of international cooperation almost always leads to sorry displays like the cheers for Kim Yo-jong. We love the games, but incidents like this should remind us they sometimes do more harm than good.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate — and a contributing writer for National Review.
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